Suzi's Blog

Capers 101 and Caper Butter

Capers. You know the word and in a second your mind thinks: round, kinda like a peppercorn, and salty.

Capers are a treat, a genuine utilitarian ingredient that can be applied to many different recipes. The lovely book Anchovies, Olives and Capers by Georgeanne Brennan devotes mini-chapters to explaining the backgrounds of these three Mediterranean wonders. And Brennan supplies both very simple and classic recipes using the three, sometimes together for overpowering bursts of flavor. The Caper Butter recipe below is a fast way to a world beyond garlic bread. Toast some bread, apply this caper butter, and two things will happen: you’ll be pleased and you’ll be thirsty. I think I love capers because of all that salt.

All that salt. Brennan explains the origins, care, and proper use of capers. The flowering bud of the caper bush, capers are something that could easily be overlooked. They are the prototype Mediterranean deserty plant: short, squat, and not edible without processing. The natural plants love stony walls and crevices and grow to at most 3 feet wide and a 1 ½ feet high. If you are hiking, you’ll just step over them.

As a cultivated crop, Spain and Italy are the primary sources of capers. Whether wild or cultivated, the capers must be picked by hand and then undergo multiple processing steps, all involving salt.

The picked capers are first put in barrels with sea salt, left for several days, then the resulting brine is poured off, and a new, second round of salt is added. The capers spend another two weeks in the salt.

Now, regional differences apply. In Italy, the capers are packed in a third round of salt, left for 2 months, and are then ready to eat. In Spain, it is a salt brine that is the third “round” for the capers. In France, round three is to bottle them in vinegar.

To get the pure caper flavor, it is best to rinse them thoroughly to remove the coating from their third round: salt, brine, or vinegar. And that flavor, still salty, is distinctive. It’s mustardy, peppery, sour, sparkling with intensity.  A few go a long way. Used adroitly, say in potato salad, capers will naturally accelerate all the other flavors without dominating the dish. And caper versatility is endless: in salads, sauces, added to chicken, sprinkled on top of salmon with lemon juice. Feel free to open a jar, give them a rinse, and sample a Mediterranean moment.

Here is the easiest possible way to begin your caper adventures.

Caper Butter

Yield: ½ cup

Ingredients:

½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

Preparation:

Using a wooden spoon or an electric mixer, soften the butter in a bowl. Add the capers and mix until well blended. Shape the butter into a log and wrap in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

To use, cut off slice of the butter as needed.-

Source: Olives, Anchovies, and Capers by Georgeanne Brenna

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