What Are Capers? (and How To Use Them)

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Pickled Capers in a Clear Glass Jar.Most people have seen or tried capers at some point, but not many know what capers actually are.

So, if you have a jar of capers and you’re wondering what to do with them, this is for you.

Conversely, if you have never tried capers, you can find out some reasons why you should.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the nutrition profile of this interesting fruit and also how to use capers in various dishes.

What Are Capers?

Capers are little green berry-sized foods that add much flavor to recipes, and they are a staple in Mediterranean cooking.

With a flavorful, salty and piquant taste, they add something unique to food.

They also have a long history and have enjoyed popularity since the times of Ancient Greece (1).

While many people think capers are a kind of vegetable, they are closer to being a fruit.

Capers grow on the caper bush, known as capparis spinosa.

Types of Capers

Every spring, flower buds appear on the capparis spinosa plant ready to bloom into flowers. If the buds are picked at this stage, they are called capers, and they are quite small in size.

However, if we don’t pick the buds, they will bloom into flowers.

After these flowers eventually die, a larger green caper will appear where the flower was – these are called ‘caper berries.’

Both capers and caper berries have a similar nutrition profile and taste, and the only real difference is their respective size. Caper berries are closer to olives in overall shape.

Although they are technically a fruit/flower bud, capers are mostly used for their flavor-enhancing effect in meals.

Where Do Capers Grow?

A Glass Jar of Pickled Caper Berries.

Capers come from the Mediterranean region, and they grow in many countries around this area of the world.

While the caper bush usually grows in countries like Italy, Morocco, Spain and Turkey, it is capable of thriving anywhere with the right environment.

For capers to grow correctly, they require a hot and arid climate.

Due to this, we can find capers growing in arid or semi-arid areas such as Australia, Egypt, and Pakistan, among others (2).

Key Point: Capers are flower buds (or fruit) that grow on the caper bush. Prevalent around the Mediterranean region, they add a large amount of flavor to food.

What Do Capers Taste Like?

Capers are overwhelmingly bitter in their raw state, so much so that they are inedible.

As a result, a preparation process is necessary to make capers edible.

Hand-Picking

First of all, the capers are hand-picked from the bushes.

Capers must be picked by hand as the timing is crucial; the flower buds need picking just before they start to open.

As the bush also contains many thorns, this labor-intensive process is time-consuming and why capers are relatively expensive per gram.

Soaking

After picking, the capers need to soak in water for a day or two.

This soaking process helps to lessen the bitter flavor.

Curing / Pickling

Once the capers finish soaking, they have to undergo a curing process.

The first option is to salt-cure the capers, which involves covering them in salt. This method involves packing the capers in salt, ensuring that they are fully covered.

After about one week, the salt can be rinsed away, and the capers will be ready to eat.

An alternate method is to pickle the capers in a brine solution that contains salt and vinegar. They should be ready to eat after around one week, but they will taste better after several weeks.

Finished Taste

Once the preparation of capers is complete, their taste changes and they lose (most of) their bitterness.

Instead, the capers take on a salty, piquant, flavorful, slightly sour and slightly sweet taste.

In other words; they have a whole range of different flavors mixing together, which is why they are so good for flavoring food.

Key Point: Capers are exceptionally bitter in their raw form, but we can remove this bitterness by curing them in salt or brine.

Nutrition Facts

With a water concentration of around 84%, capers are mainly water. Due to the curing process, they are also very rich in sodium.

However, they also offer some nutritional benefits.

The tables below show the full nutritional values of capers per 100 grams (3).

Calories and Macronutrients

Calories / NutrientAmount (kcal / grams)
Calories23 kcal
Carbohydrate4.9 g
Fiber3.2 g
Sugar0.4 g
Fat0.9 g
Saturated Fat0.2 g
Monounsaturated Fat0.1 g
Polyunsaturated Fat0.3 g
Omega-3 Fatty Acids184 mg
Omega-6 Fatty Acids111 mg
Protein2.4 g

As shown, capers are low in calories, low in carbohydrate, and contain minimal amounts of fat and protein.

Considering that a serving size is 1 or 2 tablespoons, capers don’t make a significant contribution to calories or any other macronutrient.

Vitamins and Minerals

The tables below show the micronutrient profile for capers.

Vitamins

VitaminAmount (% RDA)
Vitamin K31%
Riboflavin8%
Vitamin C7%
Folate6%
Vitamin E4%
Niacin3%
Vitamin A3%
Thiamin1%
Vitamin B61%

The most significant vitamin is vitamin K, and there are trace amounts of most other vitamins.

Minerals

MineralAmount (% RDA)
Sodium123%
Copper19%
Iron9%
Magnesium8%
Manganese4%
Calcium4%
Selenium2%
Zinc2%
Phosphorus1%
Potassium1%

As a result of their curing process, capers provide a substantial amount of sodium.

These little flower buds are also reasonably good sources of copper, iron and magnesium.

Polyphenols

All plant foods contain certain phytochemicals, and capers are no exception.

The polyphenols within capers include the flavonols kaempferol and quercetin (4).

Capers are also the most significant dietary source of rutin, which is also found (in much smaller concentrations) in olives and other fruit and vegetables.

Key Point: Capers provide a moderate amount of some important vitamins and minerals. However, we generally don’t eat large amounts of capers, so their overall nutrient contribution will be low.

Health Benefits of Capers

Since we don’t eat them in vast quantities, there are not so many benefits compared to other foods.

However, there are still some decent advantages of including capers in our diet.

1. Good Source of Sodium

A Handful of Capers On a Wooden Spoon.

Firstly, almost everyone knows that excessive amounts of sodium are not conducive to good health.

However, it is possible to go too far in the other direction, and needless sodium restriction can be harmful.

Sodium is an essential mineral, which means that we need it in sufficient quantities to live. There are also studies showing that too high and too low sodium can cause problems.

For example, it appears that sodium intake between 3 grams and 6 grams reduces mortality risk compared to lower or higher amounts (5, 6).

In other words; extremes of intake can cause harm, and we should be looking to consume a “normal” (or sensible) amount.

In a diet that is relatively free of processed food, the sodium content of capers can play a role in consuming enough sodium.

Key Point: Capers are high in sodium – an essential mineral that is important for health – in the right dose.

2. Help To Prevent Oxidation During Cooking

Some research demonstrates that the bioactive compounds in capers may help to make our cooking healthier.

In one particular study, a phytochemical extract taken from capers inhibited lipid oxidation in red meat, in a dose-dependent manner (7).

A further study found that the phytochemical and antioxidant activity of capers is similar to that of other berries (8).

Despite this, there is no research verifying that using whole capers in cooking matches these effects. However, it is not unreasonable to suspect this may hold true.

For instance, a wealth of studies demonstrate that herbs, spices and red wine help to protect food against oxidation through the bioactive compounds they contain (9, 10).

3. Nutrient Density

Although the total number of nutrients per 100 grams is not significant, capers are still quite nutrient-dense.

For example, they only contain 23 calories per 100 grams, so per calorie, capers offer a rich source of vitamins and minerals.

Notably, capers provide meaningful amounts of vitamin K, sodium, and copper.

Key Point: Studies suggest that cooking meat alongside capers helps to prevent lipid oxidation, and they also provide a decent range of nutrients.

How Do You Use Capers?

Have a jar of capers and wondering how to use them?

The first thing to do is give them a quick wash. While rinsing capers is not necessary, it is advisable as they will be very salty straight from the jar.

Also, they have absorbed lots of salt while jarred, so they will still have a salty taste after having a rinse.

8 Ways To Use Capers

A Chef Decorating a Salad With Capers and Mozzarella.

There are numerous things that you can do with capers. Here are just eight of many;

  • Make a dip: blending capers along with some other flavorful ingredients can make a tasty and nutritious dip for meat (or anything else).
  • Soups and stews: add some capers into a soup or stew for a big dose of flavor.
  • Salads: throw a few capers onto a salad for a unique contrast in taste.
  • Cooking with meat or fish: putting some capers in with meat or fish while cooking adds a flavorful, salty taste.
  • Add to a dish: no matter what you are making, capers act somewhat like a spice and add flavor to anything they are in. Try adding a few capers as a flavor enhancer.
  • Salmon sashimi: eating raw salmon alongside raw onion, capers and horseradish sauce is the fashionable way to eat this fatty fish.
  • Cheese platter: cheese platters are a quick, nutritious and tasty meal. Alongside traditional side items such as olives and cold cuts of meat, capers make a great addition for a taste variation.
  • Straight from the jar: some people enjoy to eat capers alone as a snack. That said, I don’t really recommend this one as they do get a bit salty.
Key Point: Capers are a versatile ingredient and there are so many different ways to use them. They work particularly well in a meat dish, and they are great for making salty and flavorful dips.

Capers Recipes

For a few ideas of what to do with capers, here are some quick and easy recipes.

1. Tomato Cheese and Caper Dip

To make this dip, use the following ingredients;

  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 3 oz (85 g) tomato paste
  • 1 oz cream cheese
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tbsp fresh oregano
  • 1/2 tbsp fresh basil

Making this dip is simple; all you have to do is combine the ingredients and then blend them in a food processor.

Blend until the ingredients form into a consistent mixture, and then serve as a dip alongside some beef or lamb.

2. Lemon Cream Salmon and Capers

For a tasty baked salmon dish, use the following ingredients per person;

  • 6 oz (170 g) salmon fillet
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 1/2 fresh lemon
  • 2 fl oz (56 ml) heavy cream
  • 2 cloves garlic (mashed)
  • 1/2 finely chopped small onion
  • 2 oz (56 g) finely chopped mushrooms
  • Pinch of black pepper

To make this dish, firstly sprinkle the salmon fillet with black pepper and then bake in a pre-heated oven at 400°F (200°C).

While the salmon is baking, heat the cream on the hob and add the capers, fresh lemon juice, garlic, onion and mushrooms.

Bring close to the boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer.

After about 10-12 minutes, both the salmon and the lemon cream sauce should be ready.

Put the salmon on a plate, and cover in the lemon cream sauce. This dish works well alongside some green vegetables (asparagus is a nice fit).

3. Antipasto Platter

For a delicious antipasto platter, try the following ingredients (per person);

  • 2 oz cured meats (jamon, salami, prosciutto)
  • 2 oz cheese (of your choice)
  • 1 oz (28 g) kalamata olives
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 1 oz sun-dried tomatoes
  • 3 oz (85 g) blackberries or raspberries

On the positive side, this option only needs several minutes to prepare.

Just combine everything on a plate, and then arrange in a nice layout.

If you drink alcohol, a glass of red wine makes a nice companion for this meal too.

Final Thoughts

Capers are a reasonably healthy food that brings a lot of taste benefits to our meals.

They are simple to use and they combine well with almost anything.

All in all, capers are a nutritious way to enhance a wide range of recipes.

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