How to Use Capers in Cooking

Capers, often found nestled in jars on grocery store shelves, are a distinctive ingredient valued for their burst of flavor. These small, green buds are harvested from the caper bush and typically preserved in brine, salt cure, or vinegar, lending them a tangy, olive-like flavor with a hint of lemon. While tiny in size, capers pack a punch, making them a versatile addition to many dishes. Their robust taste is best appreciated when capers are used sparingly, and they work exceptionally well in balancing and cutting through the richness of foods.

When incorporating capers into your cooking, consider the profile of your dish. Capers add a salty and acidic note that can enhance various recipes, from sauces and salads to meat preparations and pastas. Before adding them, it’s important to rinse off the excess brine or salt to avoid overpowering your meal with saltiness. Whether blending into a buttery lemon-caper sauce to elevate fish and chicken or mixing into a vibrant salad for a touch of acidity, capers contribute a depth of flavor that can enrich your culinary creations without overwhelming other ingredients.

The Basics of Capers

Before incorporating capers into your dishes, it’s important to understand their nature, the different types available, and the proper methods for storing them to maintain their distinctive flavor profile.

What Are Capers?

Capers are the unopened flower buds of the Capparis spinosa, commonly known as the caper bush. Once harvested, capers are typically cured in a salty brine or vinegar solution which enhances their naturally tangy flavor.

Capers:

  • Flavor: Tangy, salty, with a hint of lemon
  • Common Uses: Accentuating meats, pastas, dressings, and more

Types of Capers

Capers come in several forms, with two primary types available in stores:

  1. Brined Capers: These are the most common form, preserved in a solution of vinegar and salt.
    • Typically found in glass jars or bottles
    • Rinsing is recommended to remove excess saltiness
  2. Salt-Packed Capers: Another popular variety, these are preserved dry in salt.
    • Offer a more intense flavor
    • Require soaking before use to remove extra salt

As capers mature on the bush, they may develop into caperberries, which are larger and contain seeds. Like capers, caperberries are often pickled and used in similar culinary applications, but their larger size makes them more suitable as a garnish.

Storing Capers

To preserve the quality of capers after opening, proper storage is essential:

  • Store capers in their original liquid in a tightly sealed container.
  • Keep them refrigerated to ensure they remain fresh and flavorful.
  • Brined capers can last for several months when stored properly.
  • Salt-packed capers also have a long shelf life but may require refrigeration depending on the brand.

By selecting the appropriate type of capers for your recipe and storing them correctly, you can enjoy their unique taste in a variety of dishes.

Preparing Capers for Cooking

Before integrating capers into your dishes, it is crucial to prepare them properly to balance their intense briny flavor and ensure they complement your meal perfectly.

Rinsing and Draining

Capers are typically preserved in a salty brine or coated with salt. To ensure they don’t overpower your dish with saltiness, rinse them thoroughly under cold water. Gently squeeze the capers to remove excess liquid—this helps to reduce the vinegar and acidic undertones and prepares them for further use in cooking.

Chopping and Crushing

If your recipe calls for a milder caper flavor or a more blended texture, chopping capers finely can be an effective technique. For a more pronounced caper presence, lightly crush them with a knife or the flat side of a blade to release their lemony and olive oil-like flavors, which can be a standout in sauces and dressings.

Integrating Capers into Dishes

How Can I Incorporate Capers into My Meals?

Capers, with their distinctive salty and briny flavor, serve as a versatile addition to many dishes. Their tangy zing can invigorate sauces, accent main courses, and provide a unique twist to salads and sides.

Sauces and Dressings

Incorporating capers into sauces and dressings changes an ordinary recipe into an extraordinary one with minimal effort. For a vibrant Lemon Caper Butter Sauce, mix capers with melted butter, lemon juice, and fresh herbs. This sauce pairs splendidly with fish or chicken dishes. Mayonnaise can also be uplifted by capers; try adding them into your homemade tuna salad for an enhanced taste. Furthermore, a dollop of caper-infused mustard or pesto can elevate the flavors in sandwiches and pasta dishes.

Main Dishes

Capers can be the star ingredient in main dishes. A classic Chicken Piccata wouldn’t be the same without the burst of flavor that capers provide. Create a mouthwatering chicken piccata by sautéing chicken breasts and adding a sauce made of lemon juice, white wine, capers, and a touch of butter. For seafood enthusiasts, adding capers to scallops pan-seared in butter brings a welcome balance of acidity.

Salads and Sides

Enhance your salads and sides by sprinkling in a handful of capers. Their salty punch cuts through the richness of potato salad and adds dimension to a simple tuna salad. To find harmony in a dish like eggplant caponata, integrate capers for additional layers of savory depth. Vegetables, either steamed or roasted, benefit from a scattering of capers, especially when integrated into a warm side dish.

Capers as a Garnish

Capers offer a distinctive tangy and briny flavor that can enhance a variety of dishes. As a garnish, they provide not just taste but also visual appeal. When you aim to garnish with capers, it’s essential to consider their potent flavor and how it will complement the main elements of your dish.

Incorporating Capers

  • Fried Capers: For a crispy texture, quickly fry capers in olive oil until they are golden and drain them on a paper towel. This technique mellows their tang and adds a crunchy contrast to dishes like beef carpaccio or roasted vegetables.
  • Raw Capers: You can sprinkle capers raw for a more intense hit of acidity. This method works especially well with fish, such as topping a bagel with lox.

Complementary Garnishes

Pairing capers with other garnishes can create a harmonious flavor profile:

  • Lemon: A squeeze of lemon juice or finely grated zest can brighten up the saltiness of capers.
  • Chopped Green Olives: Similarly briny, green olives enhance the capers’ flavor without overpowering the dish.
  • Chives: For a hint of oniony sharpness, finely chopped chives make a delightful addition to capers as a garnish.

Caper Berries

On occasion, you might come across caper berries, which are larger than capers and contain seeds. These can also be used as a garnish, particularly for more substantial plates where their heft can stand up to robust flavors.

When using capers as garnish, remember that a little goes a long way. You are adding both taste and a decorative element, so distribute them sparingly to ensure they don’t overwhelm your dish.

Pairing Capers with Other Ingredients

Capers, with their tangy and briny flavor profile, elevate a variety of ingredients. In this section, you’ll learn how to harmoniously pair capers with other ingredients to create a symphony of flavors.

Complementary Flavors

Pairing capers with other ingredients starts by understanding complementary flavors. Capers possess a sharp, salty flavor with a hint of lemon, which can accentuate the flavors of:

Capers and Dairy

Capers can seamlessly integrate with dairy products, creating a balance between the briny and the creamy:

  • Cheese: Incorporate capers into dishes with feta or goat cheese to provide a tangy contrast.
  • Cream Cheese: Mix capers with cream cheese for a delightful spread, perfect on bagels with lox.
  • Butter Sauce: Whip up a caper-infused butter sauce to drizzle over cooked fish, enhancing both the richness and zest.

Capers and Proteins

The unique taste of capers works exceedingly well with various proteins, bringing out their natural flavors:

  • Lox and Tuna: Capers are classic accompaniments to lox and tuna, where their saltiness complements the fish’s delicate taste.
  • Seafood: Add capers to seafood dishes such as shrimp or scallops to amplify the fresh oceanic flavors.

Caper Alternatives

When you’re out of capers or simply want to experiment with different flavors, several ingredients can serve as excellent stand-ins. These substitutes can mimic the capers’ distinct tangy and salty characteristics, infusing your dishes with comparable zest.

When to Substitute

You might seek a caper substitute when you’re mid-cook and realize you’re out, or perhaps you’re catering to someone’s taste preference or dietary restrictions. Unavailability in local stores might also prompt a search for alternatives. In any case, choose a substitute based on the capers’ intended function in the dish, whether it’s to add a touch of brininess, a burst of acidity, or a hint of herbal notes.

Suitable Substitutes

Below is a concise breakdown of caper substitutes that you can easily incorporate into your cooking:

  • Green olives: These have a similar salty and tangy profile. Chop them up to match the size of capers for a seamless switch.
  • Gherkins or Cornichons: Offer a pickled, zesty kick that is excellent in salads, sauces, and as garnishes.
  • Artichoke hearts: With their unique flavor, they can provide an understated, earthy substitute, particularly in Mediterranean dishes.
  • Kalamata olives: While stronger in flavor, they can be an effective alternative when used sparingly.

Additionally, for dressings and marinades, you can use a splash of olive oil to add a silky texture that balances out the substitutions above. Consider the existing flavors of your dish to ensure the alternative complements rather than overpowers.

Buying and Discovering Capers

When you set out to buy capers, your goal is to find the ones that will contribute the right intensity and taste to your cooking. Whether you’re after the smallest nonpareil variety or a larger size for a bolder presence, knowing how to select and where to find quality capers can enhance your culinary endeavors.

Selecting Quality Capers

To ensure you’re bringing home the best, look for capers that are small in size, as they tend to be more tender and less bitter. These flower buds should have a firm texture and be packed in brine or sea salt for the best conservation of their piquant flavor. Check for origin labeling; capers from the Mediterranean regions, like Italy or France, are often regarded for their superior quality due to the optimal growing conditions in those areas.

Finding Capers in Grocery Stores

You can typically find capers in grocery stores, situated near the pickles and olives or in the international aisle. Here’s a quick guide to help you navigate the store:

  • International Aisle: Look for brands that specialize in Mediterranean products.
  • Condiment Section: They may be with pickles and olives.
  • Specialty Stores: For a wider variety, including those from Italy and France.

Remember to check both the lower and upper shelves, as capers might not be placed at eye level. Local grocery stores usually stock standard-sized capers, but if you’re seeking specialty types, a visit to an Italian or French delicatessen might be necessary.

Unique Uses of Capers

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Capers, with their distinctive tangy and briny flavor, can considerably elevate the taste profile of dishes and drinks alike. When you step outside the bounds of traditional recipes, you’ll find that capers can add an unexpected twist to many of your favorites.

Capers in Cocktails

A cocktail, like a Bloody Mary, thrives on bold flavors. Try adding a spoonful of minced capers to the mix to introduce a new depth of savory notes. This pairs especially well with the traditional celery stalk and the overall umami essence of the drink. It’s a simple yet impactful way to diversify your Bloody Mary recipe.

Recipe Twist: Bloody Mary with Capers

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 oz vodka
  • 3 oz tomato juice
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp minced capers
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Tabasco (optional, for heat)

Instructions:

  1. In a shaker, combine all ingredients except capers with ice and shake well.
  2. Strain into an ice-filled glass.
  3. Stir in minced capers.
  4. Garnish with a celery stalk and enjoy your uniquely flavored Bloody Mary.

Non-Traditional Recipes

Venturing beyond the typical can unlock a wealth of culinary opportunities where capers can shine. Imagine a breakfast bagel, departing from the classic lox and cream cheese, by incorporating a caper-infused cream cheese mixture. This adds texture and a zesty kick that perfectly complements the smoothness of the cheese.

Unusual Pairing: Caper-Infused Cream Cheese for Bagels

  • Ingredients:
    • 1 cup cream cheese, softened
    • 2 tbsp capers, finely chopped
    • 1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
    • Salt to taste
  • Instructions:
    1. In a bowl, combine cream cheese, capers, and dill.
    2. Season with salt, mix well, and spread on your favorite bagel.

In both cocktails and non-traditional recipes, capers can be a small addition that makes a big impact. You have the power to transform simple dishes into exceptional ones with this secret ingredient.

Health and Nutritional Information

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Capers are a distinctive ingredient with a salty, savory flavor that can enhance your dishes. Nutritionally, they are very low in calories but offer a valuable contribution of certain micronutrients. Here’s a brief overview of what you can expect from a serving of capers:

  • Calories: They are low in calories, making them a guilt-free addition for enhancing flavors.
  • Sodium: Due to their curing process, capers are high in sodium, contributing to their saltiness.
  • Fiber: Capers provide a decent amount of dietary fiber despite their small size.
  • Vitamin K: They are a notable source of vitamin K, essential for blood clotting and bone health.
  • Copper: This mineral, although needed in small amounts, is crucial for your body’s energy production and connective tissues.

Nutritional Breakdown

NutrientAmount per 1 ounce (28 grams)
Calories6.4
Protein0.6 g
Fat< 0.1 g
Carbohydrates1.3 g
Fiber0.9 g
Sodium678 mg
Vitamin K5.6 mcg
Copper0.1 mg

Remember to account for capers’ saltiness when adding salt to your recipes, as they can significantly contribute to the overall sodium content. Their savory flavor pairs well with a variety of foods, from fish to salads, making them a versatile ingredient in your kitchen.

Cooking Techniques and Tips

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When incorporating capers into your cooking, remember their flavor profile is intensely salty and acidic, similar to green olives but with a distinct lemony undertone.

For Pastas: Rinse capers before use to reduce saltiness. Add to sauces or toss in pasta dishes to enhance the overall taste. A simple aglio e olio pasta gains complexity with a spoonful of capers.

Classic Piccata: Utilize capers in classic chicken or veal piccata. Sauté your protein, then deglaze the pan with lemon juice and white wine, adding capers for a tangy finish.

Salad Dressings: For a twist, blend capers into salad dressings. Their pickled nature adds depth to vinaigrettes when mixed with olive oil and other seasonings.

IngredientQuantity
Lemon Juice1 tbsp
Olive Oil3 tbsp
Capers (rinsed)1 tsp

To Preserve Texture: If your recipe includes heating, add capers towards the end of cooking to preserve their unique texture.

Remember: When integrating capers, start with a small amount and adjust to your preference, keeping the balance of flavors in mind.

Exploring Regional Caper Dishes

Cooking with capers - Delicious recipes from the Mediterranean cuisine

Capers add a burst of tangy and briny flavor, which is crucial to many regional specialties, particularly in the Mediterranean, where they are an essential ingredient in numerous iconic dishes.

Mediterranean Favorites

In the Mediterranean region, you’ll find capers used generously to enhance flavor profiles. Italy is renowned for its use of capers in dishes like Piccata, traditionally made with lemon, butter, and capers, most often served with veal or chicken. Another Italian staple is the Eggplant Caponata – a sweet and sour dish that includes capers for a distinctive zesty accent.

Here’s how you might encounter capers in Mediterranean dishes:

  • Italian Piccata: Generally featuring chicken or fish, with a sauce made of lemon, butter, and capers.
  • Eggplant Caponata: A Sicilian dish where capers contribute to its unique tangy-sweet flavor profile, combined with eggplant, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
  • Salads: Capers are often sprinkled over salads for a pop of flavor, especially in Greek and Italian salads, where they’re mingled with olives, tomatoes, and feta cheese.

Beyond the Mediterranean

While capers are a staple in many Mediterranean dishes, their culinary use extends beyond this region. They bring brightness to sauces and garnishes around the world. For instance, you might find them enhancing the flavor of fish dishes in Scandinavian cuisine or in French tartars where their piquancy is highly appreciated.

Consider how capers can elevate dishes globally:

  • Fish Dishes: Capers pair excellently with fish, whether added to a sauce or used as a garnish.
  • Tartars and Pates: A small amount of capers can add complexity to these refined spreads and dishes.

Remember, when using capers, they tend to be salty, so you might want to adjust the amount of added salt in your dish accordingly.

Enhancing Meals with Capers

What are Capers? Plus Recipes to Use Them In!

Capers add a burst of flavor to any dish with their salty and tangy notes, and can be incorporated at every meal, from breakfast to dinner. Their lemony undertones and unique taste complement a variety of ingredients.

Breakfast Ideas

Bagels with Lox and Capers: For a classic New York-style breakfast, top a toasted bagel with cream cheese, thinly sliced lox, and a sprinkle of capers. The capers will cut through the richness of the cream cheese and lox, giving you a balanced and flavorful start to your day.

Lunch Inspirations

Capers in Tuna Salad: Elevate your tuna salad by adding capers for a touch of briny sharpness. Mix in a tablespoon of capers with your usual tuna salad ingredients, and serve on bread or over greens for a quick and delicious lunch.

Dinner Enhancements

Chicken Piccata with Capers: Sauté chicken breasts and create a sauce with lemon juice, butter, and capers for an impressive chicken piccata. The capers will add a pop of flavor and complement the lemony sauce perfectly. Serve over pasta or with a side of vegetables.

Fish with Caper Butter Sauce: Prepare your favorite fish fillets and top them with a caper butter sauce. Sauté capers in melted butter and add a dash of lemon juice before drizzling over the cooked fish. It’s a simple yet sophisticated way to bring a restaurant-quality meal to your dinner table.

Frequently Asked Questions

Capers add a burst of flavor to many dishes; knowing how to utilize them correctly can elevate your cooking to new heights. Let’s explore some common queries about the use of capers in various recipes.

What are the best practices for incorporating capers into pasta dishes?

For pasta dishes, capers should be added towards the end of the cooking process to maintain their distinct briny taste. Rinse the capers if they are salted to avoid over-seasoning your dish.

In what ways can capers enhance the flavor of chicken recipes?

Capers, when added to chicken recipes, provide a tangy contrast to the mild flavor of the poultry. They work especially well in recipes like chicken piccata, where they’re combined with a buttery lemon sauce.

How can capers be added to salads for optimal taste?

To incorporate capers into salads, mix them in with your dressing to evenly distribute their flavor, or sprinkle them on top as a garnish. Their sharp taste pairs well with leafy greens and vinaigrettes.

Which types of fish pair well with capers in culinary preparations?

Capers complement the natural flavors of light and flaky fish such as cod, sole, and snapper. They can be used in sauces or as a garnish to add a lively touch to seafood dishes.

What are some vegetarian recipes that can be elevated with the use of capers?

Consider adding capers to vegetarian recipes like pasta puttanesca, roasted vegetable medleys, or grain-based salads. Their piquancy is a great way to enhance the depth of vegetarian dishes.

Are there any specific steps to follow when using capers with salmon for a delightful outcome?

When using capers with salmon, mix them into a sauce made of dill, lemon juice, and olive oil, then spoon over the cooked fish. The capers’ saltiness accents the rich flavor of the salmon beautifully.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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