What are Capers?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A number of Italian, French and Greek recipes call for an ingredient not often found in American dishes — a flavor enhancer known as capers. Capers are sometimes confused with the brined and dried fish called anchovies, since both are harvested from the same regions and are processed similarly. They are actually immature buds plucked from a small bush native to the Middle East and Mediterranean regions of the world. Fresh blossoms are not especially flavorful, but their sharpness increases dramatically after sun-drying and brining in vinegar.

Chicken piccata frequently includes capers.
Chicken piccata frequently includes capers.

Capers ready for the marketplace are usually packed into distinctive glass jars filled with coarse salt or vinegar brine. A number of kitchen supply stores and grocery stores carry them, so cooks should not have difficulty finding enough for a recipe. Taken straight out of the jar, they are far too salty for consumption, so professional chefs recommend placing them in a small strainer and rinsing them under running water before adding them to sauces or meats. Because the flavor can be so intense, most recipes only require a few to add sharpness to a savory dish or sauce.

Capers are a traditional ingredient in tapenade.
Capers are a traditional ingredient in tapenade.

Mediterranean cuisine has used capers for thousands of years. In fact, they were often used as informal currency among merchants traveling ancient trade routes. They became favorite additions to fish sauces and marinades, along with brined and dried anchovies. The indigenous bush which produces capers is very well-suited to the sandy and nutrient-poor soil found in the Middle East region. These bushes can often be found growing between the cracks of sidewalks and broken roads. Processing the buds can be a labor-intensive process, since harvesters must pick the immature blossoms at a specific point in their growth cycle.

Chicken piccata, which is topped with capers.
Chicken piccata, which is topped with capers.

If the immature blossoms are not selected to become pickled capers, they will sometimes turn into caper berries, which bear some resemblance to olives. The berries are not used in the same way as the buds in recipes. They are more likely to be eaten as a snack or added to savory salads or dressings. Caper berries are sometimes marketed as capers, but the two should not be confused when cooking. Most recipes call for the small buds, not the larger and less salty berries.

Capers are highly popular around the Mediterranean, and feature prominently in that region's cuisine.
Capers are highly popular around the Mediterranean, and feature prominently in that region's cuisine.
Some Greek salads feature capers instead of olives.
Some Greek salads feature capers instead of olives.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


They are very high in quercetin!


I am so addicted to capers. I eat them right out of the jar, however, some brands are way too salty, so I rinse them first. I love the pickled, salty, taste they have. The texture is fun, too.

I prefer the Capote as they are a little larger (pea sized) and have a bit softer texture. I have never actually used them in a recipe or a dish yet, but someday I will, if I can keep a jar around long enough without snacking on them.


For those interested in longevity of capers after the jar has been opened: they will be good to use for up to a year. After opening the jar should best be kept in the refrigerator.

Before the jar has been opened capers will be good for several years, and can be kept in the pantry.


Can a bird eat capers if they are in rice?


What do they smell like?


About capers being the seeds of the Nasturtium. A "Kappertjie" is not a caper. It can, however, be used in place of a caper.


they remind me of baby pickles.


To Peekie: To me capers taste like a burst of dijon spicy mustard.

In fact I came to this site to see if they were related to the mustard family. --Myrna Li


A caper would be considered a fruit. Any portion of a plant containing seeds is technically considered a fruit. A fruit is the ovary of a plant and a caper would fall into that category.


Capers are berries. They can grow up to be a little more bigger then olives. Had a bush in my garden.


But what do capers taste like?


I mistakenly picked up this jar of "Lemon Caper Sauce" at the grocery instead of an "Italian Marsala Sauce". While reading the sign above, I picked a jar up, not realizing which one I grabbed!

I'm excited now, to try my chicken with this new sauce! I never even knew what a caper was until I read the comments and then went to another site for some recipes. Thanks to all of you!


Capers are the small flower bud of the caper bush and are not nasturtium buds. However the unripe seeds of the nasturtium plant are sometimes used instead of caper buds since the taste is similar. If the buds of the caper bush do not get picked for human consumption then they will bloom and eventually become caper berries. In other words, caper berries are the fruit of the caper flower. Caper berries are often used instead of olives and never used to replace capers in recipes.


Capers are very high in beta-Sitosterol. So they are great for prostate health! All men should consider adding capers to a healthy diet.


Capers are the seeds of the flower called, Nasturtium. They are called "Kappertjies" in Afrikaans. Looks like a big rough pea. Very nice to use in foods.


Capers are neither fruit nor vegatable. They are un-bloomed flower buds from a bush (sorry, I can't remember the name of the bush)


SusanWalter: Capers and Caper berries are kept like pickles, as long as they are in the brine, you can keep them indefinitely.


I recently had what I was told were capers but they were the size of a green olive, very briny, and with a long stem. Is this possible? I have always associated them with the pepper corn size.


I think capers look like a small dried up peas. I think the taste adds a wonderful flavor to dishes. I had them in an Italian chicken dish last night and it was wonderful. I would dare say the best chicken I have had in a long time!


I, too, want to know how long capers are good after opening.


are capers a fruit or vegetable, or what category do they fall into?


How long are capers good after opening a jar?


What do capers taste like, anyway?


anon 7240 - You are right, capers are similar in size to peppercorns, maybe slightly larger.

They are salty, so it is a good idea to rinse them before use. We are learning that even in small amounts they promote heart health, and thwart cancer growth. Good things do come sometimes in small packages.


How long are capers good after opening?


Aren't capers about the same size as peppercorns?

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