Capers vs Caperberries - What is a Caper Anyway?

No More Confusion ...

Article by Eliza Ward

Capers may be the most misunderstood Mediterranean ingredient—after anchovies, that is. Even those who know and love capers are often stumped when asked to explain what a caper is. We thought we’d give it a shot: The caper is the unopened flower bud of the Capparis spinosa or Capparis intermis, a weed-like bush found just about everywhere in the Mediterranean. However, this is not to be confused with the caperberry—which is the ripe fruit of the caper bush. The caperberry is typically much larger (about the size and shape of a green olive), milder in flavor, and typically found pickled on antipasti plates; or if you're really lucky, in a trendy Manhattan.

Capparis Spinosa and Capparis Intermis bushes can be found growing wild throughout the Mediterranean from Spain to Greece. One of the most common places to find the weed-like caper bush is in olive groves, which is why capers and olive oil are often associated with each other. But, there is one place in particular known for having the very best capers: Pantelleria—a small island in the Mediterranean Sea tucked between Tunisia and Sicily. It is a volcanic island and, consequently, has exceptionally mineral-rich soil, aka the perfect soil for growing capers!

The taste of the caper changes depending on the geography, geology, and climate it’s grown in. In fact, the Island of Pantelleria is so well known for its capers that they are the only capers that can garner an IGP (Protected Designation of Origin) certification. The IGP certification ensures that the caper has been grown and packaged on the island and is a badge of authenticity and quality.

One Caper... Two Caper...
Capers are categorized by size, with small capers being the most desirable. The smallest caper on the market is called a “nonpareil”—meaning “unparalleled”—and they must be 7mm or smaller in size. This is because the smaller the caper, the more aromatic and intense the flavor. Smaller capers also maintain their firm, nearly crunchy texture much better than the larger variety. Thus, they are considered the best for using as a garnish or whole in sauces; where their texture is a benefit and holds up in cooking. The size also reflects the labor-intensive picking process, as the buds are picked early in the growing cycle, and early in the morning before the buds have started to open in the hot Mediterranean sun.

Since the larger capers have already begun their transformation into flowers, they are generally much softer and best saved for creams or pates. Or when the shape and look are what you want to see—like in Fried Capers.

Another major factor when considering caper quality is how the caper is packed: salted vs brined vs dried; the three main methods of preserving capers. Dried capers are the most difficult to find, which is fine because salted capers are my personal favorite.

Salted capers keep their own flavor much better than those preserved in brine because the salt serves to dehydrate the caper; absorbing only the excess water within the caper without changing the flavor. Meanwhile, capers preserved in brine remain moist but have a noticeably lighter flavor, as well as a flavor that tends towards vinegary, which can mask the subtle flavor of the caper itself. Brined capers have also been "cooked" in the jar, which tends to make them softer. Brined capers are really more of a French tradition, and you are unlikely to find them in Italy.

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.

The versatile caper
Capers can be used in hundreds of different ways, and their distinctly fresh and acidic flavor adds a kick to simple recipes. Personally, I love capers in spaghetti sauce with tomatoes or sautéed in butter and poured over tortellini. They are a great addition to salad dressings, or the ever-popular Tuna Butter—adding both some salt and their distinct flavor. They also work fabulously in a classic Chicken Piccata with Capers.

Also, if you are a fan of Crispy Fried Capers—a GREAT addition to a salad or atop Grilled Salmon—be sure to use the salted kind. They will crisp up much faster (and with less splatter), the end texture is more agreeable, and you'll get a more flavorful result. Whether you choose to use the nonpareil or the larger capers is really up to you.

Whether you choose the brined or the salted capers, make sure to rinse them before you use them.

Check out our selection of Pantescan Capers and related caper products here: Shop the caper aisle at ChefShop