Capers are the green and unopened flower buds of the caper bush, a plant also known as Capparis spinosa or Flinders rose that’s native to the dry, sunny, and rocky Mediterranean seacoast of Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.
A thorny plant that grows in viney brambles, the caper bush is well-adapted to the poor soil and harsh heat typical to the climates of the areas it can be found in. Capers bushes can’t grow in overly humid or cold climates.
In the hot days of late spring, summer, and early autumn from May to September, the flower buds need to be picked every 10-12 days. This is best done by hand and early in the morning, before the flower buds start to open in the heat of noon.
They’re not to be confused with caper berries—the ripe fruit of the caper plant about the size of an olive—that’s also eaten brined and is often served on antipasti platters alongside salumi and hard cheeses.
Capers have been used for culinary purposes for thousands of years. The first mention of them is in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” a Mesopotamian tale that dates back to as early as 2,000 B.C.
Technically, capers are premature flowers. Therefore, when eaten straight from the bush, they are incredibly bitter. This is why they’re brined or cured in salt, bringing out their floral flavor and toning down their bitterness.
Capers’ zing, which tastes like a mix of mustard and black pepper, comes from methyl isothiocyanate, a sulfurous chemical compound that gets released when you crush the tissues of the flower buds as you chew them.
Brined capers also have a sour, lemon-like, pizzicato flavor, which comes from the vinegar or wine that makes up the brine.
Brined vs. Salt-Cured Capers
Brined capers are the picked and preserved flower buds of the caper bush in a solution of spring water, distilled white vinegar, and sea salt. They taste salty and, when you bite into them, have a strong sour kick.
As their name suggests, salt-cured capers are flower buds of the caper bush that have been picked and packed in sea salt. They have a salty, floral, and fermented taste (that’s noticeably less acidic compared to brined capers).
Which is better?
Brined capers are squeaky and tangy, and their salt-cured counterparts are savory and zesty. Ultimately, it comes down to your personal preferences. So I encourage you to try both and decide for yourself.
Brined capers are cheaper and easier to find, as practically every grocery store carries at least a few brands in their Meditteranean foods aisle. Salt-cured capers can generally be found online. They’re higher-priced but offer a firmer texture and a more vibrant flavor.
I like mine from Cento, a U.S. importer of Italy’s finest foods since the 1950s. When in doubt, go for their brined capers or salt-cured capers. They come in 12-packs of 3-oz jars, which are not only conveniently sized but also reasonably priced.
Where Are Capers in the Grocery Store?
Most hypermarkets and grocery stores carry capers. But, sometimes, they can be surprisingly hard to find!
So here’s where to look.
When at the store, look for capers in the condiment aisle somewhere next to the jarred pickles and canned olives. Otherwise, they may be in the Mediterranean or international foods aisles near the Italian foods.
Costco, Kroger, Publix, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart all carry capers. So do Italian markets and delis. However, you may have trouble finding them at convenience and dollar stores.
Should Capers Be Rinsed?
Whether they’re brined or cured in salt, capers tend to have an overpowering taste unless you wash the salt crystals or salty brine away from their surface.
Capers should be rinsed thoroughly before use to tone down the salty and sour taste they’ve picked up from the brine. To rinse capers, put them in a sieve and hold them under lukewarm running water for 10-15 seconds.
Still, there’s an exception to every rule.
For example, when you’re looking to add a powerful burst of pungency and tanginess to a tomato salad or seafood pasta, you may prefer adding a handful of capers straight from the brine.
Unrinsed capers can do a great job of brightening up a dish as long as you pair them well for balancing out the flavors instead of dictating them. Remember, the best recipes are rich in color and diverse in flavor.
Don’t go all-in and soak capers for prolonged periods of time like some food bloggers will advise you to. They’ll come out soggy and bland, which is the exact opposite of why you’re cooking with them in the first place.
Should Capers Be Cooked?
Capers don’t need to be cooked. Instead, they’re rinsed from the brine or cure, then eaten raw, sprinkled on top of green salads, added to pasta, risotto, pizza, panini, bruschetta, or paired with chicken and whitefish.
You can also make a tapenade by mixing capers with olives, garlic, sea salt, freshly-cracked black pepper, lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil in a food processor and briefly blending until all the ingredients have incorporated but are still chunky.
While you can cook with capers, you should add them right at the end, or all of their aroma and flavor will cook off. They’re an excellent substitute for anchovies when you don’t have them at hand or simply don’t want them to impart a fishy flavor to your dish.
How Long Do Capers Last?
Unopened jarred capers are shelf-stable. You can store them in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight, such as in your pantry or inside a kitchen cabinet.
For the same reasons (and as a general rule of thumb for all canned/jarred foods), you shouldn’t store capers on a windowsill, near your stove, or in proximity to the back of your fridge.
Capers must be stored in the fridge once opened. Compared to other foods, they have a long shelf life. Tightly sealed and continuously refrigerated, capers will stay good for up to 12 months.
Can Capers Go Bad?
Eventually, every food spoils (and capers are no exception).
Capers are preserved in brine or salt and have a relatively long shelf life because of that. However, they can go bad surprisingly quickly if stored improperly.
Make sure you’re not exposing a jar of capers to direct sunlight or sources of heat. If you notice a bulging lid, discard them immediately: that’s a sign that the seal is broken and harmful bacteria have entered the jar.
To tell if jarred capers have gone bad, take a close look at them, then give them a whiff: if you notice any signs of mold or smell an off odor, they may not be safe to eat and should be discarded.
Freezing Capers for Prolonged Storage
Capers can be frozen for storage long past their “best by” date.
To freeze capers, strain them from the brine, transfer them to a food storage container or ziplock bag, and put them in the freezer.
Since there is no bacterial growth at freezer temperature (0°F), frozen capers stay safe to eat indefinitely. However, their texture, aroma, and taste will start to degrade over time—so aim to use them up within no more than a year.
To thaw frozen capers, transfer them to your fridge the night before you plan to use them. Within 12 to 24 hours, they should be defrosted and ready to eat.
If you’re in a hurry, transfer the capers to a sieve and hold them under lukewarm running water for 3-4 minutes. To retain their freshness, avoid thawing them in the microwave.
Should Capers Be Chopped?
Occasionally, a recipe may call for chopping capers and mixing them with other ingredients, like olives and tomatoes…
Which has some of our readers asking, is this okay to do in the first place?
You can eat capers as-is, chop them into spreads, or put them in the food processor and blend them into a paste; whatever the recipe calls for! Nothing specifically requires you to keep them whole.
Should Capers Have Pink Spots?
You may notice that some of the capers in your jar have pink spots, or a pink hue as a whole, to them.
Does this mean there’s something wrong with them?
Capers are the unopened flower buds of the caper bush. Sometimes, a bud or two in your jar may have pink spots because they were picked just before they bloomed. Even so, they are entirely safe to eat.