What Are Capers? Get the Scoop, Plus How to Use Them

Learn more about these briny, beautiful berries, including what plant are capers from and what are capers used for—recipes included.

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If you’ve ordered a bagel with lox or smoked salmon, chances are high that you’re already familiar with capers. In addition to a schmear of cream cheese, slivered red onions, and fresh dill, the beautifully briny green orbs often adorn this classic deli order.

But what are capers, besides one of the staple ingredients on this menu item? Ahead, we’ll explain what plant are capers from, the different varieties of capers, what are capers used for (beyond as a bagel garnish), and how to store capers.

Whether you’ve eaten them thousands of times or never before, you’ll likely learn something new in our complete guide to capers.

What Are Capers?

Capers look like little jewels. They’re actually unripe green flower buds from a bush. So what plant are capers from? Capparis spinosa, which grows wild in the Mediterranean, parts of Asia, Australia. Once harvested, capers are cured in salt or pickled in brine (often featuring water, salt, and some source of acid), which not only extends their lifespan but adds to their signature pop of bold, savory, salty flavor. 

Due to their briny and sharp qualities, capers taste a bit like green olives—just with a floral, citrusy tartness that’s completely unique to capers.

Types of Capers

Capers are categorized by their stage of development, and as such, their size. A general rule of thumb: The larger the caper, the tougher the texture and stronger the flavor. 

Capers are available in six different sizes:

  • Nonpareilles: About 7 milliliters in diameter (approximately ¼ inch) 
  • Surfines: 7 to 8 millimeters
  • Capucines: 8 to 9 millimeters
  • Capotes: 9 to 11 millimeters
  • Fines: 11 to 13 millimeters
  • Gruesas: 13 millimeters or larger (nearly ½ inch)

If a caper is allowed to grow and mature long enough on the bush, it becomes a caperberry. These resemble a small olive, have tiny, kiwi-like seeds hiding inside, and sport a long stem. Caperberries are softer in texture and milder in flavor, and often sold pickled just like their petite caper siblings.

How to Store Capers

Unopened jars of capers in brine should be A-OK at room temperature for up to 18 months, the USDA confirms. Once the container is opened, refrigerate capers and use them within 1 year.

Caper Recipe Ideas

Now that you know all about what capers are and what they add to a dish, what are capers used for recipe-wise?

Since the bushes are native to the region, capers are fairly common in some Mediterranean fish and chicken entrées, pasta sauces, stews, and more. Salads, bagel bars (of course), and pizzas are also stellar vehicles for capers. They can be fried and used as a garnish for crostini recipes, salads, dips, and so much more.

Feel free to get creative and add capers to any dish you feel like may benefit from a pop of punchy, tangy, and floral flavor. Here are 13 caper recipe ideas to get you started:

 The Best Caper Substitutes

While nothing can completely replace their distinct bright, briny, lemony, vegetal and floral attributes, if you can’t find or don’t love capers, try these substitutes for a similar flavor.

  • Finely chopped green olives
  • Lemon juice
  • Green peppercorns
  • Anchovies
  • Nasturtium buds
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