The very first time I heard of capers, I thought they were a form of chilies. Can you imagine the ignorance?
However, in order to save you the embarrassment, I faced when I confidently blurted out my not-so-right assumption in front of people,
In this article, I will endeavor to explain what exactly capers are, what they taste like, how to store them and so much more.
They may be small but they have got a big story and a load of history behind them.
Capers were traditionally used as condiments in the Mediterranean region of the world. However, more recently, capers have often been found in Spain, France, Greece, and even Morocco.
Being as versatile as they are in use, capers can be used to give a unique sour and salty taste to various main dishes.
Capers can also be used in the kitchen to spice up sauces and various dressings. Capers are also very common in Italy and even in India where the pickled capers are famous for their use in preparing fishes.
It is good to note at the very beginning that the intensity of the taste of capers comes from mustard oil that is released from glucocapparin molecules that are generally found in capers.
What do capers taste like? The simplest answer is that they are tangy, just like lemon. They are sweet and also have a salty taste.
What are capers?
I’m sure you are wondering what these things called capers are in the first place. Well, capers are what you get when the plant that almost looks like a shrub, capparis spinosa, also called capers bush or flinders rose, creates a bud.
We know from our elementary science that the bud of a plant is usually what changes into its flower.
When it comes to capers, before the bud flowers it is usually picked for drying, brining, pickling and packing. When they are picked, fresh capers should be olive green in color and just about the same size as a pea.
The caper bush can take about between three to four years to come to maturity.
The ideal surrounding for the caper bush to have healthy and full growth is full exposure to the sun in a hot and dry climatic area. Generally, capers do not thrive in humid conditions.
Capers can also survive in poor soil, but it is preferable to plant the caper bush in an area where the soil is rich in nutrients, is well-drained, and is alkaline in nature.
After planting the caper bush, it would be wise to water it regularly through the first two summers.
The caper bush has been found to enjoy winter rains. Once the plant has established, they are typically very drought tolerant and resistant.
The branches of the caper bush usually keep growing. As such, it would be a good idea to regularly prune the caper bush branches especially in late autumn or each winter.
The pruning should be done between 2 - 6 inches in length. The caper bush branches will ideally grow quickly in Spring and once they have reached about 30cm in length, they start to flower all over again.
Capers mature at around 3 - 4 years and will live for a long 30 to 50 years. It is worth noting that you can grow capers in gardening pots but this probably will not be a good idea and the harvest resulting from planting the capers in a pot will not be very good either.
This is because the caper bush likes to develop a large and expansive root structure and planting it in a pot restricts it from doing so.
How long do capers last?
An opened container of capers can last continuously refrigerated for about a one year maximum period and keep well and retain good quality.
When properly stored, an unopened container of capers will generally keep well and remain at best and optimum quality for between one and two years.
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How to store capers
There exist three main ways in which capers are preserved. The varieties are usually either salted, brined, or dried.
Depending on the variety of capers that you buy, they can be safely stored in the refrigerator or the kitchen pantry. Store bought brine-packed capers, should be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container.
It would be good to ensure that the buds are completely covered in the brine in the container.
Capers that are packed in salt ought to be stored in a resealable airtight container and kept at room temperature either on the kitchen counter or the pantry. Alternatively, they can be stored in the refrigerator.
When storing an unopened container of capers in the kitchen or pantry, ensure that the container is placed in an area or environment that is not directly subject to sunlight.
The area should also be dry and relatively cool.
A good note to have in mind when dealing with canned capers is to ensure that the container is neither rusting nor leaking from the sides.
The container should also not have any bulges on it. The presence of these usually suggests that the contents of the container may have been contaminated in one way or another.
How to tell if capers have gone bad
If there is anything that I have learned with fresh fruit and produce, this also includes generally many of the ingredients that we use and have in the kitchen.
It is that the best way to gauge whether or not they have gone bad is to use our senses. The same applies to capers.
Usually, sight is the best way to tell if your capers are starting to or have gone bad. Normally, when you open up the package containing the capers or the container in which you had stored them in, the top of the container ought to be flat across.
If you open up your container of capers and the shape at the top is sort of rounded or like a dome, the capers have most likely gone bad (a probable reason for this could be because the jar was not sealed properly when packaging).
If you also open up the jar and you do not hear the normal pop that usually accompanies the breaking of the seal, then the seal had been previously broken and you should be cautious when using the capers.
Another way to tell if the capers have gone bad is if you look at them and the color has changed from the normal green to anything brown or black (this is of course besides any spices that have been added) then the capers should not be consumed at any cost.
Capers will usually begin to darken in color as time goes on after the expiry or sell by date has passed.
The taste of the capers will also begin to change over the period of time they are kept for.
Another obvious way to tell if the capers have gone bad is simply to smell the capers.
If you open the packaging and the scent that hits you is foul and off, there is no reason to try consuming or using the capers, they should be thrown out immediately.
Of course, if you open your packet and spot any sign of mold, they are unsafe to consume.
How to pick capers
You probably have not been told but, ideally, picking the capers or buds if you like, actually encourages more buds and flowers to develop on the caper bush (crazy, right? I know). However, as noted before, capers cannot be eaten fresh or right of the branch if you like.
They are similar to olives in that they are just too bitter and need to be treated first before they are consumed.
An interesting fact that most people do not know is that you can also choose to pickle the young leaves of the caper bush and use them in a salad.
It goes without saying that the most ideal point in time or period in which to pick capers is when the bud is still tight.
How to pickle capers at home
Since capers are naturally bitter when they are first picked and it is unheard of to eat them right from the branch, the capers need to be cured or treated in order to remove the said bitterness.
One of the key ways that capers are preserved is through pickling them.
Now, if you have grown a caper bush at your home and do not want to waste them or spend money to buy store-bought capers, you can choose to just pickle the capers yourself at home.
In order to do this, you just need the capers, loads of salt and to follow the steps outlined below;
- Starting off with clean capers, you want to begin by placing them in a container and adding some salt to the capers. This amount of salt that is being added should be at least just about 40 % of the weight of the capers. You should keep in mind that you ought to stir the mixture occasionally for 10 - 12 days.
- After ten days of the addition of salt, it should be followed by draining off the salty liquid that emerges in the bowl ten days after mixing them.
- Once the draining is complete, you can proceed to then add more salt to the capers (this time the amount of salt that is being added should be at about at least just 20 % of the weight of the capers) and after another 10 days of letting the mixture sit, drain out the mixture once again.
- Once you have drained the salty liquid this time around, you can now go ahead and transfer the capers into the container you would like to store them in, add just a bit more salt to the capers and preserve the capers by either placing them in the refrigerator or in your pantry.
- The salt stored capers should always be rinsed out and soaked in fresh clean water at the point in time when you want to use them.
What is the difference between capers and caper berries?
If you are anything like me, you may have come across or heard about caper berries, and now you are stuck wondering what the difference between these two things is. Can you substitute capers for caper berries and vice versa?
Well, to answer this, while capers are the unopened buds of the caper bush, a caper berry is the actual fruit of the caper bush.
This means that unlike the caper, the caperberry is found on the stem of the caper bush.
Essentially, what we are trying to say is that capers are the tiny green edible buds of the caper bush, which if left unharvested produce white and pink flowers, closely followed by the production of caper berries.
Like all vegetables and fruits and most other ingredients that we use in the kitchen, the taste of the capers is highly dependent on elements of the place it is growing in.
These are elements such as the actual location, nature of the climate, and the geology of where the cappers are grown in. This area where capers grow is oftentimes referred to as terroir.
Capers are most normally categorized according to the size the buds come in. Following this, smaller capers are usually the ones that are the most desirable and sought after.
The smallest caper on the current market is called a “nonpareil” – which translates into “unparalleled” - and they must be 7mm or smaller in size. It is not just fun and games when choosing sizes of cappers.
The sizing of capers is truly important because the size of the caper reflects to and generally affects the flavor of the caper. It is said that the smaller the caper the more fragrant they are and the more intense the flavor that you can get or accrue from it.
Smaller capers are also said to maintain their firm, nearly crunchy, texture much better than the larger variety.
Due to this, the smaller capers are therefore regarded the best for using as a garnish or as a whole in sauces where their texture is a benefit and hold up to the cooking.
It is important to also note that the size of the capers also reflects how intensive the labor will be during the picking process.
This is because, the buds of the caper bush are generally picked quite early in their growing cycle, and equally they are picked from the caper bush branches quite early in the morning before the buds have started to open in the hot Mediterranean sun.
Although the larger capers tend to be very attractive to look at because the larger caper bush buds have already begun their transformation into the caper bush flowers, they are generally so much softer to the touch and as such are best saved for creams or sauces.
Another major factor when considering the quality of the caper before purchasing them is to look at how the capers have been packed.
The varieties are usually either salted, brined, or dried (the three main methods of preserving capers). The most difficult capers and caper berries to find are the dried variety.
Salted capers keep their own flavor much better than those preserved in the brine because the salt serves to dehydrate the caper - absorbing only the excess water within the caper but not changing the flavor.
Meanwhile, capers preserved in brine remain moist but have a noticeably lighter flavor, as well as an overwhelmingly vinegary flavor – often masking the subtle flavor of the caper itself.
Brined capers have also been "cooked" in the jar, which tends to make them mushy.
It's important to note that you will not find a brined (or "pickled") caper anywhere in Italy. Brined capers are really more of a French tradition.
Dried capers are crunchy and are generally a dehydrated version of salted capers. Dried are popular in parts of Greece and are gaining recognition internationally.
How to use capers
Capers can be used in hundreds of different ways, and their distinctly fresh and acidic flavor adds a kick to simple recipes.
They are a great addition to salad dressings, adding both some salt and their distinct flavor. Whether you use the brined or the salted capers, make sure to rinse them before you use them.
Unlike capers and caper berries, salted and brined capers can be used in place of each other.
Salted capers, which are the most preferred option of capers by most cooks because of their meaty and intense flavor, need to be soaked in a cup or glass of cold water for about 15 minutes and rinsed out before they are used.
This process will help in getting rid of some of the salt that was used in the preservation process since the consumption of too much salt is neither good nor advised.
Brined capers, on the other hand, can be used straight from their packaging. This is mostly the case unless a recipe specifies otherwise. The brine tends to add flavor to the dish being prepared.
When experimenting with capers in the kitchen, it would be advisable to start out with a small amount, this can be between 2 to 3 teaspoons of the same, and then once the dish is done and you taste it, you can choose to add more capers to your desired taste. Some of the ways that you can choose to use and to enjoy capers are:
- In recipes that contain meat and fish: for these two dishes, one can use the capers as a garnish. One of the more popular ways that people in most parts of the world have enjoyed capers is by having them sprinkled on the top of smoked salmon served on some bread that has cream cheese and just a dash of lemon squeezed on it. To be more adventurous, you can also choose to add capers to a lemon-butter sauce for fish, or as an alternative, you can mix the capers into ground meat when making burger patties.
- In making delicious sauces: capers are known for their use in preparing pasta or tomato sauces, mayonnaise, and even mustard sauces. For a more intense flavor, crush the capers before adding them to sauces. To do this you can use literally anything in your kitchen, right from the back of a spoon to using a pestle.
A bonus tip to keep in mind when thinking of using capers next is that, when you add just one tablespoon of crushed capers into half a cup of sour cream, it will make a very tasty dip.
The dip can accompany steamed vegetables such as chilled artichokes or many other vegetables. Stir a teaspoon of crushed or whole capers into dips.
- In the preparation of eggs: If you are tired of having the old boring usual deviled or scrambled eggs each morning, you can choose to literally spice things up and add capers to your normal eggs.
- Say goodbye to basic sandwiches and pizza: capers can further be used to add flavor to these two dishes. They can be added to say an egg sandwich as well as sprinkled on pizza as a further toping. They can also be added to mayonnaise as a spread for sandwiches.
- In healthy salads: In order to give your salad a nice new unique taste once in a while, you can toss the capers into a healthy green salad, or add a teaspoonful of the capers
- To a vinaigrette: Capers can also be easily added to a nice warm serving of mashed potatoes.
Capers have the ability to be used in the preparation of a meal through using it as a garnish or as a condiment on its own.
They can also be used to decorate appetizers and main dishes, or use them in place of pickles or relish in recipes.