What are Capers?
Capers are the small, edible flower buds of the caper bush, which is native to the Mediterranean region, Asia Minor, and some parts of North Africa. The caper bush produces pretty white flowers that, when picked prior to blooming, become the caper buds that are commonly used as a culinary seasoning.
Capers are most often prepared by pickling or brining the buds. This preparation infuses them with a salty, tangy, and uniquely pungent flavor that adds a burst of interest to dishes. The antioxidant-rich buds can have a sharp, mustard-like flavor when used raw but mellow into something more rounded and fruity once cooked.
Capers are especially essential to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. They are also popular ingredients in Italian, French, and Spanish cooking. Common uses for capers include pasta sauces, pizza, dressings, condiments, and as a garnish or accompaniment for meat, seafood, and vegetables.
Types of Capers
There are a few different types and sizes of capers available. The principal factors that set them apart are bud size and intensity of flavor.
Capers Non Pareil
Capers non pareil are the smallest grade of capers commercially sold. They range in size from around 2 to 5 millimeters. As their name suggests in French, “without equal,” capers non pareil are considered the highest quality and most desirable size grade.
- The tiny caper buds are perfectly round in shape.
- They have a very smooth, almost creamy texture when crushed or pureed.
- Their flavor is subtle, concentrated, and complex.
- The delicate taste and petite size make non pareil capers excellent for using as a finishing garnish.
Capers capote are noticeably larger in size than non pareil, measuring between 5 to 8 millimeters. They are sometimes labeled as “surfine” capers.
- Capers capote have a more wrinkled texture and irregular, oblong shape compared to non pareil.
- They tend to be slightly more bitter and pungent in flavor.
- Though more robust in flavor, capote capers cost less than non pareil due to their larger size.
- They hold up well to cooking and are ideal for pickling.
Appearance and Texture
Beyond the size difference between non pareil and capote capers, there are some other subtle differences in their appearance and texture.
Capers Non Pareil
The dime-sized non pareil capers have a round, button-like shape. Their smooth surface texture resembles that of a pearl, which inspired their French name, “non pareil.”
Thanks to being harvested at an earlier stage, the tiny buds retain a creamy, almost crunchy pop when bitten into. Their small size and delicate globe shape also allow for an even brining or pickling process.
Capers capote have a more oblong, irregular shape that comes from being picked later in development. They have a shrivelled appearance that produces a looser, wrinkled texture.
The larger capote capers can vary more in size within a batch. Their crumpled surface helps them absorb flavors while being brined or pickled. When cooked, capote capers hold their texture better than the more delicate non pareil.
Uses in Cooking
Capers bring a salty, zesty burst of flavor to both savory cooking and garnishing. Their intensity allows them to enhance without overpowering other ingredients. Both non pareil and capote can be used in similar dishes, though their differing sizes make them suitable for some different uses.
Both caper varieties are commonly used in:
- Pizzas, pasta dishes, and sauces
- Salad dressings, marinades, and sandwich spreads
- Seafood like smoked salmon and fish cakes
- Mediterranean cuisine like tapenades and chicken piccata
- Pickled and brined foods like peppers, eggs, and vegetables
Capers Non Pareil
The diminutive size and milder flavor of non pareil capers make them best suited to:
- Garnishing finished dishes
- Adding texture to dips, relishes, and sauces
- Infusing vinegars and oils
- Complementing creamy seafood like oysters and fish tartare
With their more robust flavor, capote capers are ideal for:
- Pickling whole capers
- Heartier cooked sauces and braises that mellow their flavor
- Skewered and grilled meats
- Given their lower cost, adding liberally to dishes
Nutrition and Health Benefits
In addition to providing a flavor boost, capers are low in calories and high in beneficial nutrients. Per tablespoon, capers contain:
- Just 3 calories and 0.1g fat
- 269mg sodium – they are pickled, after all
- Minimal carbohydrates and protein
- High levels of vitamin K, important for blood clotting
- Antioxidants like quercetin and kaempferol
The same antioxidants that give capers their sharp flavor also provide health benefits:
- Antioxidants help control damaging free radicals
- May reduce risk factors for chronic illnesses
- Anti-inflammatory effects to improve immune function
- Quercetin promotes heart health and endurance
- Rutin improves circulation and blood vessel strength
Research shows that non pareil capers retained higher levels of certain antioxidants and phytochemicals that capote after being pickled and sterilized. However, both types pack a nutritious punch.
Unsurprisingly given their small size and labor-intensive harvest, capers non pareil cost significantly more than larger capote capers.
Some key factors influence the higher prices:
- Labour: More care is required to hand-pick tiny non pareil buds at the ideal stage.
- Yield: The delicate harvesting produces lower yields. Each plant yields far fewer non pareil buds.
- Scarcity: Fewer locations can produce high-quality non pareil capers.
- Demand: Being the “best” size grade drives demand beyond supply.
The savory flavor of capote capers makes them a satisfying substitute at a more affordable price point for most recipes. But for dishes where the capers take center stage, non pareil capers justify the cost.
How to Buy and Store Capers
When purchasing capers, quality is more important than caper size. Follow these tips for buying and storing:
- Buy capers from a reputable producer; avoid generic brands.
- Check labels for “non-GMO” and “gluten free” if needed.
- Avoid cans or jars with cloudy or dark brine; it should be clear.
- Look for an expiration date and avoid old stock.
- Ensure jars or vacuum packs remain sealed.
- Refrigerate after opening; capers last around 3 months refrigerated.
- For longer storage, freeze; thawed capers may be softened.
Some well-known brands for non pareil capers include:
- Arcaleni Capperi Calabresi – an Italian brand; intense, concentrated flavor
- Pantelleria – produced on the volcanic Italian island of Pantelleria; robust flavor
- Roland Non Pareil – French-grown, consistently high quality
Good value capote caper brands include:
- Reese – a Greek brand that produces brined capote capers
- Mt. Olive – a popular U.S. brand offering pickled and salt-packed
- Roland Capote – French brand also producing good capote capers
Using Capers in Recipes
When using capers in recipes, keep these tips in mind:
- For salted capers, rinse and soak to reduce sodium if needed.
- Non pareil are best raw; capote capers can be cooked without losing flavor.
- Add capote capers early in cooking so they soften; non pareil at the end.
- Adjust amounts based on the flavor intensity and prominence desired.
- For dressings, sauces, and spreads, chop or crush to release more flavor.
- To lightly season finished seafood, sprinkle a few non pareil capers on top.
- For the best texture contrast, add whole capers bites to pasta or pizza.
While capers non pareil and capote differ in size, texture, and flavor, both punch up recipes with a salty, tangy kick of Mediterranean flavor. Tiny non pareil capers are reserved for garnishing and finishing due to their delicate flavor. Heartier capote capers better stand up to cooking and can be used more liberally in pickling. Which type to choose depends largely on the recipe and your personal preference. Keep both types on hand so you can take advantage of their unique merits.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are non pareil capers really better than capote?
This depends on how they will be used. The intense, complex flavor of smaller non pareil capers does make them the gold standard. But when cooked into sauces or brined, the larger and cheaper capote capers can perform just as well.
Can capers non pareil and capote be used interchangeably?
The two caper varieties can substitute for one another in most recipes. However, the amount used may need to be adjusted up or down. The strong flavor of capote capers requires less; non pareil may need a larger volume to impart the same intensity. Also, add capote capers earlier so they soften and meld flavors.
What foods or cuisines pair best with capers?
Capers shine in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes like pasta, seafood, chicken piccata, and tapenades. Their briny flavor also enhances smoked salmon, sauces, dressings, vegetables, eggs, pizza, sandwiches and more. Basically, they brighten up anything!