Solving a Culinary Caper

My love for capers slowly creeped up on me, a lot I imagine like those relationships where the couple start out as friends, and then realize they have something more in common, and soon amore.

What are they?

Tiny Tasty Treasures

Capers are the unripened green flower buds of the Capparis spinosa (close kin to the cabbage family), which is a bush grown mainly in Mediterranean countries (namely France, Italy, and Algeria) and in California.  For centuries, well at least back to the 16th, in the Mediterranean their harvest is often a supplementary source of income.

The reason these tasty little guys are on the pricy side is that manual labor is required to gather capers.  From May to August, the buds are picked each morning just as they reach the proper size. After the buds are picked, they are typically sun-dried, and then pickled in a vinegar brine.

Capers can range in size from that of a tiny peppercorn or nonpareilles (this variety hails from southern France and is considered the finest due to its intense flavor) to the size of the tip of your little finger (from Italy).   The size is determined by their age at harvest.  First picked nonpareilles, the smallest and tightest buds—measuring about a ¼” in length—have an intense flavor.  Food lover extraordinaire and nonpareilles enthusiast, Brillat-Savarin, believed that capers were best when gathered young—before they had “fully developed.” Other gastronomes prefer the fresh, leafy flavor of the largest capers, called gruesas, (Spanish for “bulky”), which are harvested just before they bloom, when they have reached about ½” in length.  From smallest to largest, the caper sizes are:

  • nonpareilles
  • surfines
  • capucines
  • capotes
  • fines
  • gruesas

The Appeal?

Beats toothpaste

Capers generally come in brine but can also be found salted and sold in bulk.  I’ve loaded up on tubes of caper paste in Italy that I add to just about everything.  I’ve noticed that people can get set in their ways when it comes to a favorite preservation technique for capers.  Its either the vinegary brine, or the salt cure, and for some people it means never crossing that line.  The taste is slightly astringent and pungent, kind of peppery, and they can lend piquancy to sauces, pasta, sandwiches, really the options are only limited by the chefs imagination.  Hans Röckenwagner at his restaurant, adds deep fried nonpareilles to tuna fish sandwiches for extra crunch and zing.

an evening in Florence

Curing not only preserves capers; just as with olives, it tempers their inherent bitterness. The most common method of processing freshly harvested capers is for the capers to be fermented for about two months in a saltwater bath. At the end of this process, the pickled capers are rinsed, sized, and packed with vinegar in jars.  While many claim this treatment leaches out or masks some of the caper’s delicate flavor, the resulting product is still delicious. The salt-curing method used in parts of Italy produces subtler flavored capers. In this case, fresh capers are mixed into vats of sea salt and left for up to ten days: This technique extracts moisture from the buds, creating a brine for them to pickle in, and concentrating the flavors. They are then strained and the process is repeated. They’re strained once more and packed for sale, still covered in salt. These buds, which must be well rinsed before use, have a delicate flavor and many cooks favor this preservation technique.  According to Harold McGee, this process produces astonishing transformation, whereby the radish and onion notes are displaced by the distinct aroma of violets and raspberries.  (Harold McGee, p. 409 of On Food and Cooking)

Given that capers are always preserved capers are easy global travelers and have also made their way into cuisines far from the Mediterranean. They show up, for instance, in Hungary’s spiced liptauer cheese and Germany’s Königsberger Klopse (meatballs in caper sauce); in various sauces for fish and meats throughout France; as a garnish on smoked salmon and marinated herring in Scandinavia; and even in Salvadorean meat-filled tamales.

Venice, Italy

Greek food expert Aglaia Kremezi, says that clay tablets discovered in Crete dating from the 13th century BC state that capers were used to flavor olive oil. The Greeks and Romans later ate them with bread and used them to seasoned fish and meat.

Spain is one of the leading producers of capers, harvests about 1,700 tons annually, and exports about 80%.  Another major producer of capers is Italy, where 60% of Italy’s caper production is from the hillside terraces of Pantelleria, an island off Sicily. Capers here are picked later with sizes ranging from ¼” to ½”. Regardless of size, many consider Pantelleria’s capers to be the finest in the world because of their exposure to the sun, the volcanic soil, and the sea salt–curing method used.  The Italian government confirms this opinion: In 1993, the island was given a Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC—similar to wine— guaranteeing the origin and quality of capers labeled “Pantelleria”.

Need some cooking ideas for capers?

Final note, capers and caperberries are not the same thing.  They both come from the same plant, but the capers as described earlier are the immature buds of the plant, while the caperberries are actually the fruit of the plant,basically the unripe bud that would be the caper if it was picked and treated is allowed to ripen flower and produce a fruit.  Caperberries can be substituted for capers in a pinch, especially if you want the dish to be a bit less acidic, but the same is not true in reverse.

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Notre Dame, Paris

Finally, Sophie of Sophie Foodiefiles tagged me to answer the following questions. Sophie is a Belgian food lover and creative cook who’s website is filled with incredibly original, healthy recipes that promise to tempt you from the start.

1. What is your most memorable meal that you ate in your life & why?

I cannot pick just one,  the most recent one is the dinner we had in Rome – simply an amazing way to celebrate our 10th Anniversary, others include a wedding on Mt. Fuji in Japan and asked to sing karaoke at our hotel bar (exceedingly tone deaf, it was not pleasant for me, and I imagine everyone else) the food was just exceptional.  There’s also those first time meals, like the first time I had sushi and my friend convinced me that the washabi was avocado, or the first time I discovered pho, or the first time I had a stuffed artichoke.

2. Why did you started blogging?

I am not sure I had one specific reason.  I saw some fantastic blogs out there and felt like I wanted to participate more than just reading and commenting.  I had something I wanted to say and I was curious if others were interested in the same things.

3. What is your favorite restaurant, where & why?

Again, its almost impossible to pick one.  I love Komi in Washington, DC, the creativity and dedication to quality was obvious from the first time I stepped in the door.  The chef had renovated the dining room and reduced the number of seats to make sure that the focused remained on quality.  How many times do you see that?

Delicious treats in Singapore

4. Who are your 3 favorite chefs in the world and why?

Hands down, my mom tops the list with her creativity and dedication and curiosity, and because she started me down the path of appreciating good food.  Heston Blumenthal’s creativity just blows me away, I mean meat fruit!  How often do you see that?  Michel Richard was another favorite chef of mine when I lived in the DC area.

5. What is your favorite recipe on your own blog and why?

I love all the recipes, but I have to say, I had a lot of fun working with Adrienne Andrews of Gastroantropology and love the recipes she created for our joint projects. I cannot wait to see the next one she has in the works. Her Its-It recipe rocked as did the popovers.

6. To which music do you listen to when you cook and bake & why?

Sometimes I just like the silence, but otherwise I will always love the Stones

7. What is the strangest food that you have ever eaten and did you like it or not?

This is a trick question as everyone has a different definition of strangeness.  What might be strange for me is perfectly normal for someone else.  My first trip abroad was to Japan and I knew that they ate eel.  Growing up in the midwest, this was not a food I had encountered,  and by the looks of them was grateful for that fact.  Three days into our visit, my cousin asked me if there was any food I would not eat.  I said eel.  There was this pregnant pause before she responded that I had eaten eel for breakfast since I arrived.  I loved it, and acknowledged as much, and have never looked back.

A picnic while watching the sunset in Tuscany

8. What is your most lovely food destination in the world & why?

Sophie these sorts of questions are just mean.  I cannot pick just one.  Sampling fresh cheese at a farmers market in France, sharing a hearty meal in one of those restaurants that are in the basement of those old buildings in Prague where its all warm and cozy and the bonhomie just draws you in, and you follow that up with a walk over the Charles Bridge.  Sampling food in Kyoto with its beauty, and incredible temples.  People watching in a Paris cafe.  What’s not to love with all this diversity!

9. What is your most favorite food shop in the world & why?

I fell in love with Fortnum & Mason the first moment I walked into their flagship store in London, it is like a temple devoted to food.  After that, I’d have to say, I love the floors that have the food in the big Japanese department stores – so many options, so many new products and just so much to take in.

10. Which kitchen gadget do you love the most & why?

Not a day goes by that I do not use my blender.

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33 comments for “Solving a Culinary Caper

  1. December 4, 2010 at 8:32 PM

    I have always loved capers, but I never knew so much history behind the. Fascinating post… And love the Tag Q and A, fun :)

  2. December 4, 2010 at 10:05 PM

    I love the caper post. We ALWAYS have them in the fridge but I have never engaged in caper paste! Something new for us to try.

  3. December 4, 2010 at 11:55 PM

    As I am a big caper fan – or apparently, the smaller varieties, such as the nonpareils and capucines which I usually buy – I was thrilled to learn more. Now I know I should look out for the paste, too. One of these days I’ll find a use for the caperberries I have….

    I enjoyed the Q & A. I agree about Fortnum & Mason (somehow now better than Fauchon and Hediard, based on my last trip to Paris). The Japanese dept. store foodhalls are quite the mind-boggling experience.

    Thanks,

    Dan

  4. December 5, 2010 at 7:26 AM

    I also love capers and they are added to a myriad of dishes. My favorite moments are when a Midwesterner is at dinner and has never encoutered them and picks it up suspiciously and says, “What’s that?” And can assure the hesitant diner that the tasty morsel is from a plant. Love hearing more about the capers and – more about you!

  5. December 5, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    another great, informative post…love ours fried until bloomed and crispy!

  6. OysterCulture
    December 5, 2010 at 7:03 PM

    MoS – Really, what’s not to like?

    Tammy – Many European companies seem to like to put a lot of paste in tubes, and I have to say I love, it finding the caper paste was just a great surprise.

    IslandEAT – Have you ever tried substituting the caperberries for recipes that call for olives? Pretty good way to shake things up.

    Claudia – I’m with you, its fun sharing new ingredients with folks!

    RavenousCouple – Everything seems better fried.

  7. December 5, 2010 at 7:35 PM

    Capers – a pantry staple. Your post has me headed to the kitchen to whip up some pasta garnished with…

  8. December 5, 2010 at 8:54 PM

    Another interesting caper factoid: OK, not that I watch Dr. Oz all the time, but I happened to catch the tail-end of one show. And a health expert was on with him and touted how capers naturally help diminish skin inflammations. Just a tablespoon sprinkled on a dish or two a week that serves four is enough to help your skin look better. Or so they said on TV. 😉

  9. December 6, 2010 at 3:59 AM

    I love capers in the sauces, seafood, and salads…gosh…can’t get enough of them.
    Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Avocado Creamcheese Cookies

  10. December 6, 2010 at 6:48 AM

    I didn’t always like capers, but now I absolutely love them. I always add them to tuna salad. I really should add them to a lot more dishes… I love the idea of caper paste!
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Traditions

  11. December 6, 2010 at 1:30 PM

    Great info on capers! I always use them mostly for piccatas but should try something new soon :)

  12. December 6, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    Hahhaa….I watched that same episode of Dr. Oz too! But I don’t think I have tried capers (don’t believe me?). I don’t know. Maybe I have read somewhere that capers are an acquired taste – so I wonder how weird it will taste. I just don’t know what to expect. Capers-phobia????

  13. December 6, 2010 at 11:00 PM

    Thank you so much for educating me in regards to capers…I always have available in the fridge and love the taste of it :-)

  14. December 7, 2010 at 2:41 PM

    I didn’t know capers were used in Salvadorean tamales, and I’ve never used caper paste. I always learn such great things here! I am, though, a fan of capers. Salted or brined, I like them all.
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Pecan Crescents

  15. December 8, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    Unlike you my love for capers is grounded in my childhood (but not from Italian recipes). They are one of those foods that I can not resist. Thanks for the information.
    Joshua recently posted..Coffee is King- Especially When He’s Got No Clothes

  16. December 8, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    Capers always remind me of Christmas since it’s used in pastelles a traditional meat filled cornmeal pie.

  17. OysterCulture
    December 8, 2010 at 10:04 PM

    Lynn – Sounds good!

    Carolyn – You’ve given me new ideas for my caper paste!

    Tigerfish – Not sure if they’re an acquired taste or not, just know I love them.

    Julianna- What’s not to love, they just add that extra zing to a dish

    Lisa – I’m with you, I’ll gladly take them in all their forms.

    Joshua – I can’t resist them either. Once you start you just cannot stop!

    Wizzy – That does indeed sound tasty! I’ll need to check that recipe out.

  18. December 9, 2010 at 10:25 AM

    Hmm big fan of capers, myself!!! Loved the interview and your answers! Maybe one day you’ll try jellied eel!
    ruth recently posted..Foodie Experience1- Theres no such Thing as Italian Food and Ragu Alla Nonna!!

  19. December 9, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    Thanks for informing us more about capers. Haven’t heard of caper paste before. I love them in my salad and somtimes I make a sauce with yogurt-mint-capers sauce on pasta.
    And it’s great to learn more about you.

  20. December 10, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    great post as always! as you love capers, try Salinaand Lipari ones (other Sicilian little islands)and don’t forget to taste cucunci (the fruit of the plant, I think in English should be caper berry), they are awesome!!
    They look like this http://www.salinaonline.net/capperi_e_cucunci_file/cucunci%20xl.jpg
    Cellar Tours recently posted..Off the beaten track in Sicily- Strada del Vino dei Castelli Nisseni

  21. December 12, 2010 at 7:53 AM

    Ah, caper paste! What a smart idea – I will have to be on the look out for some of that! I love putting capers on tuna melts and a few other warm sandwiches, but using it as part of a spread would be so great.

    I love doing our joint posts too – and I think the It’s It is my most popular post!

    I didn’t know about your love for Japanese food…we should go to Gochi in cupertino the next time we meet up…and also, you should check out Shimo in Healdsburg…just opened but I worked with chef de cuisine, Kolin Vazzoler in the past and he’s very talented, and is very influenced by Japanese cuisine.

  22. December 12, 2010 at 5:27 PM

    I looked up images of a caper bush, and the flowers are so neat. I now have a much better appreciation for the jar of capers I buy at the store. I had no idea how laborious harvest is.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Better Than Mashed Potatoes Celery Root Purée

  23. December 13, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    I’ve never seen caper paste!!!! Superb – now I have to keep an eye out!
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..How to make Pithiviers

  24. December 16, 2010 at 9:25 AM

    I never knew there was caper paste.

    I can only take some in small doses. I rarely cook Western dishes these days. Western ingredients that are imported here usually aren’t the best quality or brand and they are definitely not commensurate with the price tags.
    The Kitchen Masochist recently posted..Loomi Luvin

  25. December 16, 2010 at 9:11 PM

    I had recently become more intimate with capers, I was always rather sqeamish of them..I never knew they were so labor intensive, and caper paste wow..another great post and I love your tag answers, the stones, rock!!

    sweetlife
    ps..when I was expecting I had pasta with capers and WOW I guess my taste buds were off, they tasted horrible to me!

  26. OysterCulture
    December 16, 2010 at 9:39 PM

    Ruth – Jellied eels is on the list! Look forward to checking out their appeal.

    Zerrin – The mint caper sauce sounds fantastic. What a treat. I’ll have to see if you shared the recipe.

    Cellar Tours – Thanks for the heads up, i’ll be looking for the capers you shared.

    Gastro – Me and food in general. I am always game to go to whatever place you want to check out, all the restaurants we’ve tried have been fantastic.

    Christine – I had not given the labor part much though until I researched this post, and it reminds me of strawberries, which I understand are incredible labor intensive practically backbreaking yet we never give it much through.

    Kitchen B – I think I see a business opportunity with this caper paste.

    KM – I understand where you are coming from if the ingredients are inferior, plus I think the location – ie weather, etc have to be conducive to the food, and I guess that’s just not the case in the Philippines

    Sweetlife – Wow, I bet that was unpleasant – when the taste buds are off and you try food, that can scar you for life!

  27. December 18, 2010 at 10:06 PM

    Never seen capers in any other size, so this is interesting. You always pull out the good info. Just had capers in an awesome roasted pepper salad with arugula. So good!
    The Duo Dishes recently posted..Exploring the Alternative Protein

  28. December 27, 2010 at 12:11 PM

    Once again Lou Ann you have wowed me with knowledge. I had not even looked up info on capers, I just knew the difference of that and caper berries…Love Love them, and on my way to catch up on reading of your posts!
    Chef E recently posted..Christmas Sweets

  29. December 27, 2010 at 5:31 PM

    I just recently started cooking with capers. It took me a while to get used to, but I love pairing it with fish. so so good.

  30. December 28, 2010 at 9:35 AM

    I adore capers and had no idea that such as caper paste existed! can you get it anywhere outside of Italy? I read that nasturium seeds are used as a cheap replacement for capers. Have you heard this before?
    Crystal recently posted..A belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

  31. OysterCulture
    December 28, 2010 at 4:10 PM

    Duo – You just cannot go wrong with capers, that’s my thinking

    Chef E – Nice to return the favor.

    Jenn – They are delicious and with fish sounds just perfect

    Crystal – I wish I knew where else you could get caper paste, but the only place I’ve seen it is in Italy. I had heard about nasturtiums, but have not had a chance to try them yet.

  32. January 3, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    Very late to the caper party but, as ever, I will be leaving here very much better informed on the subject than when I arrived, and with a hankering to try the full range of capers and not just the vinegared sort I’ve had up to now!
    Daily Spud recently posted..Spud Sunday- The Year In Spuds

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