Capers vs Caperberries - What is a Caper Anyway?

No More Confusion ...

Article by Eliza Ward

Capers may be the most misunderstood of Mediterranean ingredients - after anchovies, that is. Even those who know and love the caper are often stumped when asked to explain what a caper is. So, here goes: The caper is the unopened flower bud of the capparis spinosa or capparis intermis, a bush (well, more like a weed …) found just about everywhere the Mediterranean. Not to be confused, however, with the caperberry - which is the ripe fruit of the caper bush - typically much larger (about the size and shape of a green olive) and 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 - spanning from Spain to Greece. In fact, one of the most common places to find the weed-like caper bush is in olive groves - which is why capers and olive oil as often associated with eachother. 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 - perfect for growing capers! 

Like all vegetables and fruits, the taste of the caper changes depending on the geography, geology, and climate it’s grown in, otherwise known as, terroir. In fact, the Island of Pantelleria is so well known for its fabulous capers that the capers of Pantelleria 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 “nonpariel” – meaning “unparalleled” - and they must be 7mm or smaller in size. Size is important because the size of the caper reflects the flavor - 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 and are therefore best for using as a garnish or whole in sauces where their texture is a benefit and hold up to the 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 mediterranian sun.

Although very beautiful to look at, 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 is 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  - those are the three main methods of preserving capers. Dried capers are the most difficult to find. Of the other two preservation methods, salted capers are my personal favorite.

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.

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 distict flavor. They also work fabulously in a classic Chicken Piccata with Capers.

Whether you use the brined or the salted capers, make sure to rinse them before you use them. 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 use to use the non-pariel or the larger capers is really up to you.

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

(c), 2018