What Are Capers? What They Taste Like and When to Use Them

Small, green, briny capers are a delicious addition to chicken, pasta, seafood and more. But what are capers, exactly? Here's a closer look at the buds.

As a home cook, I never thought to buy capers. I associated the bright green buds with a fussy garnish on restaurant plates—hardly an essential pantry staple. Then I visited Italy. There, the savory green caper tops many dishes, from stewed beef to fresh pasta. The trick? Think of capers as a flavoring, like salt or spice. Once you’ve gotten a taste, you’ll want to keep a jar in the house. Here’s our guide to capers.

What Are Capers?

Capers are actually flower buds from the Capparis spinosa (aka the “caper bush”), which grows throughout the Mediterranean. The buds are plucked immature (aka unripened and not-yet-bloomed), and are dried and then pickled in salt, brine or vinegar. This process transforms the bud into the savory, juicy, citrus-spiked caper that’s ready to eat.

At the grocery store, you’ll find a few kinds of capers, such as nonpareils, surfines and capotes. The smaller the caper, the earlier the bud was picked—and the more it costs. They’ll be firm, meaty and mild. Bigger buds have more flavor, but can slant on the acidic side, and are softer.

What Do Capers Taste Like?

Capers taste super savory. They’re salty, briny and bright. Like lemons, they can taste a bit sour and puckery, especially if you’ve bought a larger sized caper. Capers pack a serious flavor punch: a spoonful of capers can flavor a whole pan. They add an unmistakable umami note to dishes.

Capers Vs. Olives

Capers and green olives have similar flavor profiles, but capers veer saltier and fresher; they don’t have the oiliness of olives. Olives can taste a little more floral or even buttery. Unlike flower-bud capers, olives are actually a fruit that grows on the olive tree—a stone fruit, to be specific (hence the pits!). Both olives and capers are often enjoyed in Mediterranean food.

How to Cook with Capers

Capers taste great in savory recipes that could benefit from a jolt of umami. Add capers directly to meat or a sauce as it cooks to infuse the entire dish with flavor. Or, sprinkle capers over the finished dish to serve as a salty, briny top note.

To prepare capers for cooking, scoop them out of their jar and strain away any brine. Larger capers should be minced or chopped before cooking, since biting into an entire caper might overwhelm the other flavors on the plate.

Recipes That Use Capers

Bagel with cream cheese and salmonAnna Denisova/Getty Images

The most famous caper vehicle might be chicken piccata, the zippy pasta dish that balances capers with bright lemon juice, and smooths out the acid with plenty of butter and chicken stock. Puttanesca, the wildly flavorful pasta sauce, doubles up on the brine with both olives and capers.

Caponata, the famous eggplant stew, is brightened with chopped capers. All sorts of fish, especially fatty fishes like salmon, taste great with capers, as does smoked fish like lox. Add a spoonful of capers to a mustard vinaigrette, or sprinkle them over a hearty dinner salad, like a Cobb or a Caesar. Take a page out of olive’s book and serve capers with cheese and crackers, or baked into a savory bread.

In short: Buy a big jar!

Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes, cooks and travels from her home base of Chicago. After going gluten-free over a decade ago, Kelsey turned to home cooking and baking as a way to recreate her favorite foods. Her specialties include gluten-free sourdough bread, pizza and pastry. When not wrangling her toddler, she enjoys reading, watching old movies and writing. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, was published by William Morrow in 2019, and her second is forthcoming.