What are capers exactly, and how to transform horrid briney ones into something saltily special
So this post is all about capers.
What are capers and what is a caper berry?
Capers are the edible flower buds of the caper bush, capparis spinose, which grows in warm, arid conditions (I get mine from Greece). The best capers come from Pantelleria, Italy’s southern-most island.
Capers are the unopened flower buds which are handpicked in the very early morning (before the buds open). Then they’re left for a day or two to dry out a little.
If the flower is allowed to flower it morphs into a berry in the usual way. The berry is known as a caper berry. It’s also used in cooking, but although it tastes a bit like a caper, the flavour isn’t quite as intense. They’re usually pickled which I think overpowers them and whatever they’re put with.
The best capers
I am lucky enough to have an almost constant supply of fresh capers which have been very lightly salted – and they are wonderful, sweet and pungent, you can add them to anything and they will immediately make it interesting.
There’s a complicated system in some countries (France mostly) which grades capers according to size. The smallest ones, nonpareils, come… you guessed it, from France. But the ones I get from Greece are bigger… on the way to exuberantly opening. And I think leaving the harvesting to the last minute in this way allows them to develop a bit more flavour. Nevertheless, mine is a minority opinion.
The worst capers – preserved in brine
Unfortunately, most people only have access to capers preserved either in salt (which isn’t too bad, but they need a lot of rinsing), or in brine which is a crime. Worst of all, some are effectively pickled – preserved in vinegar and salt – these are truly gruesome.
If I am travelling I sometimes find myself faced with the criminally brined. When this happens I have tried rinsing thoroughly and then soaking for an hour or so in milk. Then drying… and this isn’t a bad option, but it tends to make the capers rather mushy.
Then, EUREKA! I discovered an alternative. You can transform the criminally-brined into a crispy, crunchy confection.
Technique for turning criminally-brined or pickled capers into a crispy confection
- Empty the capers into a large sieve and rinse well.
- Lay out on tray and leave for a day or two.
- Get some olive oil good and hot in a frying pan.
- Add the capers, and fry until they are crispy – you’ll find this takes longer than you think… maybe as long as ten minutes.
- Cool and then store immediately in sterilised jar (go here to find out how to sterilise).
Ways of using capers
You can use these capers in so many ways:
- Eat as a snack
- Add to pastas
- Sprinkle over salads
- Incorporate into fish pies
- Spaghetti alla puttanesca
- Tartare sauce
- With smoked or cured salmon, hot smoked salmon or trout
- Chicken or veal piccata
- Lentil salad, or other salads with pulses
- Anything with hard boiled eggs
- With roast potatoes and lemon… or any potatoes with lemon
- Add to a panzanella
- In a tapenade
- In a pesto
- In a salsa verde
- Essential for a vitello tonnato
Substitute for capers
If you can’t find capers, try substituting for pickled nasturtium seeds!
For more ideas about capers on Saucy Dressings follow this link.