I’ve used capers in cooking and enjoyed them for years without knowing exactly what they are or any thing else about them.
Although not among my 15 favorite condiments, capers are surely among my the top 20. I love them in caponata (an Italian eggplant-based appetizer) and sprinkle them on smoked or cured salmon. They are also great in chicken, vegetable, and lamb dishes. I just created a recipe for salmon cakes that uses capers too.
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 of capers preserved simply in salt. However, I’ve never seen them sold that way.
Their taste reminds me of cucumber pickles, but sharper. (This is not surprising since brining is basically a way to pickle a vegetable.) 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. I typically rinse capers 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.
You don’t need to cut them if they are tiny. Still, if you do, check out the inside. Doesn’t it looks a bit like a cabbage? In fact, the bush they come from is a member of the cabbage family. You can also mash them which releases their flavor and aroma.
Have you tried capers? If not, find them in the condiment section of your local grocery store.