02/14/2012 02:42 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

So What The Hell Are Capers, Anyway?


Capers -- those salty, pea-sized dark green things -- are one of those ingredients you see a lot but may not fully understand. They're commonplace across many cuisines: You'll find them in Mediterranean dishes like chicken piccata or spaghetti puttanesca, and in French dishes like salade Nicoise. They lend a salty, pungent and vinegary punch to recipes. But do you know what capers actually are and where they come from?

Capers are pickled flower buds. Tiny capers are picked from a shrub-like bush (Capparis spinosa), long before the buds ever flower. The capers are then dried in the sun and later brined or packed in salt. (To use capers in recipes it's a good idea to rinse them first, to remove all the excess salt or brine.)

Sometimes capers are allowed to mature to a fruit about the size of an olive. These are sold as caper berries and are brined to be eaten like pickles or olives. It's common to see them included in an antipasti platter.

Capers also aren't new to the culinary scene -- they've been around since ancient times. They're grown in parts of Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, North Africa, Southern Europe, Turkey and California.

Harvesting capers is an arduous process because they can only be picked by hand. They're too small and delicate to be plucked by machine, so they're harvested individually. It's what makes them so expensive. After being picked, capers are sorted by size and then dried, brined or salted, processed and packaged. The smallest size, called nonpareil, is the most desirable and most often used in recipes.

Next time you want to add some salty flavor to your dishes, try using capers. They're perfect for topping for fish, chicken or meat, and you can also use capers in a sauce, salad or on pizza. You can try a caper tapenade or pesto to serve on a crostini, or serve caper berries mixed with other brined and pickled vegetables for an antipasti platter.

The possibilities with capers are endless, and just a few go a long way. Here are 17 ways capers can help your recipes shine:

Recipes With Capers

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