What Are Capers and Where Do They Come From, Anyway?

I’m going to just come right out and say it: Capers are weird. Now, this isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. I personally love capers. But they certainly go into that category with olives, pickles, water chestnuts, and other foods whose appeal is a briney squish.                                                                                                                                              

Even beyond their particular flavor and texture, capers are challenging. For some reason, my brain always mixes them up with shallots, even though they’re extremely different. And they have a confusing name. Why are they called the same thing as a crime plan or a dance? (This article is not going to answer that question, by the way, but it is a maddening etymological query.) 

Capers are weird little guys. Where do capers come from? What are capers used for? And are they olives or what? Here’s all the answers that I’m caper-able of giving you (I’m so sorry). 

What plant are capers from?

Though often likened to olives because they grow in the Mediterranean, capers are their own thing. The caper is an edible flower bud that grows on the caper bush (easy enough to remember). Caper bushes are a perennial, sweet-smelling shrubbery that also produce caper berries and leaves that are used in Greek cuisine. However, capers themselves are by far the most popular byproduct of this plant. 

They come in multiple sizes, with the smaller being the most desirable: non-pareil (up to 7 mm), surfines (7–8 mm), capucines (8–9 mm), capotes (9–11 mm), fines (11–13 mm), and grusas (14+ mm). 

What do capers taste like?

Once they’re picked, they’re pickled, so the answer is a bit like pickles, but generally not as tart or vinegary but a lot saltier than your typical pickled cucumber variety.

Where are capers in the grocery store?

Now that you know what capers are, where are capers in the grocery store? This is a reasonable question since, as discussed, capers are kind of their own thing and don’t quite fit in anywhere perfectly. These misfits can typically be found alongside your assorted pickles and olives in the condiment section. If you don’t find them there, they might be hiding in the international aisle. But beware, their narrow glass containers can be a little difficult to spot. 

What are capers used for?

Jar of capers in hand, heading to the grocery store check out, you might be asking yourself: What are capers used for? Fret not, they have multiple uses as an ingredient or garnish. They are one of the components of tartar sauce, for example. The big ones can be used instead of olives as a Martini garnish. But perhaps most important of all, they are terrific with salmon—If you’ve ever had bagels and lox, you’ve likely had some capers chilling out next to the onions and tomato slices. Another great dish utilizing this pair is this Garlic Caper Butter Baked Salmon. This recipe calls for three tablespoons of capers, but if you’re like me, you may want to just pour the entire jar on there. 

Now you’re a caper expert—at least the food kind. Your crime capers are your own business.

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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  • What a helpful and fun read!