What Are Capers Exactly—and How Can You Cook With Them?

You've probably heard of them and even tasted them before too, but do you know what capers are?
Capers on silver spoon

It's time to get in the know about capers, especially if you've never heard of them. Or if you have heard of them, there's a good chance you might've wondered, what are capers exactly? The little green bud you see topped on anything from salads and pastas, and even as a garnish on a filet of salmon (think Mediterranean diet) is called a caper. Those who have tried them can attest that there truly is nothing quite like it with its distinctive tart, yet salty taste, and bite-size shape.

We consulted Chef Joshua Dalton of Veritas in Columbus, Ohio, about what capers are as well as how he cooks with them. We also spoke with registered dietitian and chef Jessica Swift for more information on the nutritional benefits, too. Get ready to get schooled on everything there is to know about the mysterious green garnish.

What are capers and what about them gives them their distinctive taste?

"It's a bud of a flower that originated from the Mediterranean," says Dalton. Essentially, when you nosh on a few of these tangy, pea-sized buds, you're technically eating premature flowers from the capparis spinosa plant or, the caper bush, which produces wild, yet ornamental pinkish, purple, and white flowers. The buds are plucked from the plant just before they flower in the spring. Dalton says capers get their salty flavor from the way they're stored: "They're easily brined or packed in salt, which is where the flavor comes from."

They are not be confused with caper berries, however. There is a notable difference.

"There are caper berries—larger pods that look like a teardrop olive—and capers," he says. Caper berries are about the size of an olive, whereas capers (or caper buds) are about the size of a small pea. The berries are what grow after the plant has already flowered, and the petals have peppered the ground, and they're considered a fruit. Capers, remember, are buds.

Got it. So what kind of dishes do you include capers in?

"You can use them in any kind of seafood preparation or anywhere that you want to add salt. [They] are a great agent for salt in a pan sauce," says Dalton. "You can fry them and use as a garnish for beef carpaccio or use them in dishes like eggplant caviar or as a garnish on top of fish." He suggests frying them until they're crispy before sprinkling them onto your dish.

Are capers good for you?

"[They] not only add noticeable flavor to any dish, but also give you some nutrients such as copper, fiber, and, believe it or not, a small amount of protein," says Swift.

Is there anything about them that makes them unhealthy?

Swift says the piquant flavor comes primarily from the salt. More specifically, just one tablespoon of capers consists of 202 milligrams of sodium, which is about 9 percent of your daily needs. This might not sound like a lot, but if you're garnishing this salty ingredient on top of an already sodium-filled pasta sauce or a seasoned piece of fish, the number could get super high very quickly. Nonetheless, you should become familiar with capers, as they serve as a nice accent to any savory dish!

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Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of Eat This, Not That!, specializing in food and drink coverage, and breaking down the science behind the latest health studies and information. Read more
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