Capers are the unripened flower buds of a prickly Mediterranean plant with exotic, fragrant, white flowers. The buds are picked when they are the size of petit pois peas. If the caper is allowed to flower and set seed, a larger fruit, which is similar in size and colour to a green olive, develops, and these are known as caper berries.
Capers and caper berries are mainly eaten as preserves, dried and salted or pickled in brine or vinegar. As a result, they have a sour, salty flavour reminiscent of lemon-infused olives – partly due to the development of capric acid during pickling. Some say they have an aftertaste similar to goat’s cheese, though I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this.
Caper buds are picked by hand which is why they are relatively expensive. The smallest buds, called nonpareil in France, are the most prized for their mustard-like flavour. The larger caper berries have a stronger but less aromatic taste.
Capers health benefits
Capers grow in arid regions with poor, rocky soils, and have developed an unusually high levels of antioxidant polyphenols to protect their flower buds from high levels of ultraviolet radiation, searing temperatures and drought.
As a result, capers have one of the highest polyphenols found in foods, providing around 3600mg polyphenols per 100g weight, including 650mg of kaempferol, quercetin and rutin.
An average serving of capers (10g) provides 65mg flavonoids including 40mg quercetin.
Caper buds release mustard oil and rutin, which may form crystallized white spots on the surface of individual buds.
Capers also have a high content of carotenoids (1mg/gram) especially lutein and vitamin E (9mg/gram).
Capers and caper berries health benefits
The high polyphenol content of capers was only recently recognised yet researchers are already building an impressive list of their potential antioxidant, anticancer and antibacterial and anti-ageing potential.
Capers for weight loss: Caper extracts inhibit the effects of an intestinal enzyme, called pancreatic lipase, which helps to digest dietary fat. This effect relates to the high rutin content and is under investigation for its weight loss activity.
Capers for skin inflammation: just as the caper’s polypenols protect the plant of ultraviolet radiation, caper extracts are used in medicinal creams to prevent photo-ageing, and to treat inflammatory conditions such as rosacea.
Capers for cancer protection: Capers are used in traditional Chinese medicine to support cancer treatment. Researchers have found that capers have a natural anti-tumor activity by triggering the body’s own mechanism for destroying abnormal cells (a process known as apoptosis). This process involves the energy-generating mitochondria found within cells. A protein with anticancer, antiviral and antifungal activity has also been identified from caper berries.
Capers for diabetes: Caper berry extracts can lower fasting blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Their antioxidant action was also found to significantly reduce blood levels of glycosylated haemoglobin (HgA1c) compared to those taking an inactive control. Caper extracts also improved triglyceride levels in people with diabetes.
Capers for cholesterol: Caper extracts significantly lower total and ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol, as well as raised triglycerides, to improve overall lipid balance.
Capers for arthritis: Capers are a traditional anti-inflammatory medicine used to relieve the pain and stiffness of rheumatism and arthritis. Cell culture studies show that caper extracts have a greater protective effect on joint cartilage cells than the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, indometacin.
Capers for memory: Initial investigations suggest that caper extracts have beneficial effects in the brain to improving learning and memory.
How to add capers and caper berries to your diet
Capers keep indefinitely if kept covered in their pickling liquid. Drain and rinse off any salt, then use whole, chopped or crushed capers depending on the recipe.
Capers and caper berries are a perfect accompaniment to pizza, pasta sauces, salads, fish, chicken, cooked meat or antipasti platters of cold meat. Capers form an integral part of sauces such as tapenade (with olives), tartare (to accompany fish) and the fiesty, Puttanesca pasta sauce. They go exceptionally well with potato salad and smoked salmon, too.
Lemon Caper Salad Dressing
- The juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon drained capers, chopped
- 1 spring onion (scallion), chopped)
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- Dash of freshly ground black pepper
Place all ingredients in a small, screw-top jar. Shake to emulsify, and drizzle over a salad.