I’ve used capers in cooking and enjoyed them for years without knowing exactly what they are or any thing else about them.
Although I didn’t include them among my 15 favorite condiments, capers would surely be in the top 20. I use them in caponata (an Italian eggplant-based appetizer) and love them sprinkled on smoked or cured salmon. Capers are also great in other dishes including recipes featuring chicken, vegetables, and lamb. I just created a recipe for salmon cakes that uses capers (to be posted later in the week); this latest use of the enormous bottle of capers in my refrigerator inspired this post.
Small green balls that remind me of tiny buds, capers are usually sold in a brine of white vinegar, salt and water. I’ve heard that you can also buy capers that have been preserved simply in salt, but I’ve never seen them sold that way.
Their taste is reminiscent of a cucumber pickle (not surprising since brining is basically a way to pickle a vegetable), but sharper. Tangy, piquant, and maybe a touch sour, they add a unique taste to whatever foods they are cooked with or mixed into. If you’ve had preserved lemons, you might notice a similar strength in taste, with a saltiness that remains even after you’ve thoroughly rinsed them. Speaking of rinsing them – that’s an absolute necessity and I do it several times before using them.
It makes sense that they remind me of buds because they are just that – the pickled buds of the Capparis spinosa bush. Grown primarily in the Mediterranean region, the unopened buds are picked and sorted by size; the smaller the bud (the caper), the more prized it is as a condiment. A bush that is more than 4 years old can produce over 20 pounds of buds (capers) per year. Most commercially grown capers come from Morocco, Spain, Italy and a few other Mediterranean countries. California has also begun to grow capers commerically.
They don’t need to be cut if they are tiny, but they can be and the inside looks a bit like a cabbage. In fact, the bush they come from is a member of the cabbage family. You can also mash capers, which releases their flavor and aroma even more than if they are used whole.
Have you tried capers? If not, check the condiment section of your local grocery store, probably near the olives (or perhaps with the Spanish or Italian foods if ethnic favorites are found separately) and pick up a small bottle when you’re feeling adventurous.