My Recipe Box

Tasting Panel: Shopping for Capers

by Laura Giannatempo

fromFine Cooking
Issue 90

Tangy Mediterranean dishes like penne alla puttanesca, chicken piccata, or braised fennel get their delicious briny punch from capers. Small but packed with sharp flavor, capers are the unopened flower buds of the caper shrub, which grows all over the Mediterranean coast. Unappetizing when fresh, capers are usually sun-dried and cured in a mixture of brine and vinegar or in salt. Since we use capers often to punch up pasta sauces, relishes, and fish dishes, we wanted to find out which brands are worth stashing in the pantry. So we tasted jars and jars of capers—in brine and in salt. And here’s what we found.

Capers in brine

In grocery stores in this country you’re more likely to find jars of brined capers, while salted capers are available only in specialty food stores and some supermarkets.
After blind-testing several widely available brands of nonpareil capers (the smallest and most aromatic kind) in brine, Roland capers soared to the top with their perfect balance of brine, vinegar, and salt and their firm, pleasantly crunchy texture. We’d add them to a rémoulade or puttanesca sauce any time. We also liked B&G capers, although they pack a slightly stronger punch. Rinse them well to take the edge off before you use them. 

Capers in salt

While capers in brine often end up tasting like what’s in the brine and lose some of their crunchy texture to the liquid, capers that are cured in salt tend to maintain both flavor and texture. But they do get pretty salty. So it’s a good idea to soak them in water for 10 or 15 minutes and rinse them well before using. Our favorite salted capers were La Nicchia capers from Pantelleria, a tiny island off the southwestern coast of Sicily. They’re plump, firm, and crunchy (in a good way), with a true caper flavor and lovely floral, anise-like notes. Save these for special occasions, when you really want the capers to shine—we even toss them in salads. You can find them at Gustiamo.com. Agostino Recca salted capers also pack a nice caper flavor at a more affordable price. Plus, they’re available in many grocery stores (or you can mail-order them at Amazon.com). 

Meet caper berries

Caper berries are the mature fruit of the caper shrub. They’re larger but milder and sweeter than capers—that’s why they’re often used instead of brined olives. They’re generally sold in jars, pickled in a vinegary brine. Try them in an antipasto platter, in salads, or even in martinis. Our favorite caper berries are the Spanish Piter Alcaparrones, available at Tienda.com. They’re crunchy, fleshy, and rich, with just enough briny flavor to keep them interesting—perfect for snacking straight out of the jar. 

Photos: Scott Phillips

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