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Photo Credit: Elizabeth Newman

Why Capers are a Salty Little Secret for Italian Cooks

What are capers, and how do Italians use them?

You’ve definitely seen capers, the small, ovoid green morsels at the end of the pickle shelf in the grocery store. You’ve probably eaten them, maybe in a chicken piccata, pasta puttanesca, or (surprise!) tartar sauce. But if you’ve ever looked at that tiny jar and wondered just what those little green berries are—or whether such a small thing can really make a difference in your cooking—we’re here with the answers.

Capers are the young buds of a flowering shrub that grows across the Mediterranean region called—you guessed it!—the caper bush. Left to blossom, these buds develop into fragrant white or pink flowers with a riot of long red or purple stamens that burst out of the center like fireworks. Capers been used for millennia in cuisines across the region and into Asia, and are mentioned in the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh. The only way to harvest capers is in the early morning, to catch them when they’re most tightly closed. Too small to be harvested by machine, they must be picked by hand, then left to dry for a few days before packing.

guide to italian capers

Unlike the capers you find here in the U.S., which are usually packed in a vinegar brine just like pickles, Italian capers are dry-packed in salt. This ancient method of preservation has been used for all kinds of foods since Ancient Roman times. Makes sense for a country that is surrounded by the ocean! Salt-packing helps concentrate a food’s flavor, rather than diluting it into the surrounding liquid. (You know how olive or pickle brine ends up so flavorful by the time you’re finished with the jar? That’s because their flavor has leached out into the brine—great for dirty martinis, not so great for your pickles.)

Salt-packed capers are plumper and more tender than the brined version, and have a depth of flavor that goes beyond sour and salt. They’re slightly floral and almost meaty, with an umami edge to balance out the tartness. To use them, they must be rinsed thoroughly to remove all that salt. Depending on the dish you’re cooking, you might even soak them in clean, cold water for 15 minutes or so to draw out more of that salty flavor. This makes salt-packed capers more versatile than brined, with an intensity that can be dialed up or down to your personal taste.

caper berries

Caper Berries

But wait, what about caper berries? These much larger pickles are the size and shape of a small olive, and are actually the fruit of the same bush. They’re always sold in a vinegar brine and are crisp and crunchy, with a milder flavor than their cousins’ and an interior full of tiny edible seeds, similar to a fig. You’ll often see caper berries packed with the stem still on, and while they make a dramatic addition to a charcuterie board, they should not be used as a substitute for capers.

When it comes to Italian capers, one region rises above the rest: the island of Pantelleria, off the southwest coast of Sicily near Tunisia. With dramatic volcanic craters and, it was historically a military stronghold thanks to its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea. Caper bushes are one of the few native plants that thrive in the island’s dry, rocky terrain and intense heat, and Pantelleria capers are known to be the most flavorful and largest in Italy. They’re beloved in the Sicilian relish caponata, and the local insalata Pantesca: tomatoes, red onion, and boiled potatoes tossed with oregano, olives, and capers.

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