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We love the briny, vegetal flavor and subtle crunch of capers. Which product is best?
Reese Non Pareil Capers
What We Learned
Capers are one of the test kitchen's favorite stealthy ingredients. Both salty and lightly acidic, these small buds make the butter and lemon sing in chicken piccata and highlight the nutty, sweet garlic flavor in pasta puttanesca. Once opened, a jar of capers can last in the refrigerator for months, which makes them a convenient ingredient for weeknight cooking. We often stir whole capers into dishes or sprinkle a handful over a finished dish. Although they're most closely associated with Mediterranean cuisine, they're used in other culinary traditions, too. Capers appear in English cookbooks from as far back as the 17th century.
Most American supermarkets sell capers in multiple styles and sizes. Capers packed in salt are especially tender and often have a wider range of delicate flavors, but they must be repeatedly rinsed before use, and their nuanced flavors are easily overshadowed in recipes. For everyday cooking, we like the convenience of brined capers. In previous tastings, we also determined that we prefer a small size known as nonpareil. To find out which brined nonpareil caper is best, we purchased six products and sampled them plain and cooked in our Chicken Piccata.
The Challenge of Cultivating Capers
These tiny green spheres are actually flower buds harvested from a spiny shrub (Capparis spinosa) that thrives in the hot, dry climate of countries such as Italy, Turkey, and Spain. If left on the bush, the germinated flowers grow into caper berries. When pickled, they're edible, too, but their large size and crunchy seeds make them better suited for an antipasto plate than for cooking.
The flowering process happens quickly and repeatedly. All the buds are hand-picked and then sorted by size with sieves or screens. After they're harvested, more buds appear, which are ready for harvest in 10 to 12 days.
However, capers are notoriously difficult to cultivate. As a result, most capers—even those harvested for commercial processing—are wild. “The caper industry is still in its infancy,” explained Brian Noone, a horticulturist and the author of the book Capers: From Wild Harvest to Gourmet Food (2016). Having spent the past two decades attempting to cultivate capers, he's well aware of the challenges. Noone told us that only about 30 to 40 percent of caper bushes grown from seed “produce a decent harvest,” meaning one bush might yield 2 pounds in a single harvest while another might produce just 2 ounces. On top of that unpredictability, capers are difficult to harvest; the bushes grow low to the ground, sprawl out in lots of narrow shoots, and often have painful thorns.
What Do Capers Taste Like?
You wouldn't want to eat ...
Everything We Tested
The tangy, salty flavor of these capers was especially “fierce.” They were also some of the smallest capers in our lineup. The intensity may be due in part to their small size; with more surface area per teaspoon, the salt was more noticeable. We liked their “firm texture.”
“Too heavy on the vinegar” was the general consensus here. Tasters didn't think these “acidic” capers tasted bad, but they preferred samples with a better balance of salt and tang. In terms of texture, some capers had started to unfurl and felt a little “soft,” but most were pleasantly “tender.”