Capers are as nearly as divisive in the culinary world as the infamous Marmite; you really either love them or hate them, with indifference seemingly not an option. Grown on caper bushes throughout the Mediterranean, and harvested before they fully ripen, the caper offers a nice sharp, tangy burst of flavour.
Because of its distinct, punchy flavour, it finds a home most regularly alongside warm, buttery dishes – particularly alongside fish. They’re also widely deployed for making sauces, and depending on your opinion of them, they can really add flair to a dish when used as such.
A Complete Guide to Substituting for Capers
The distinct and powerful flavour of capers shows up in quite a few famous dishes, some of which you wouldn’t expect. In the South of France, for example, the caper forms a central element of the niçoise salad. In Italy, they feature in the massively popular puttanesca sauce. In the states, they feature more as a condiment than as an ingredient, regularly featuring on pizzas and making their presence known in chicken-based salads.
Personally, I’m hugely fond of the caper as both a culinary ingredient, and even as an addition to a cocktail. They make fantastic additions to martini and gin-based cocktails especially. Yum! But, for those who aren’t massively fond of the taste, or have simply run out, we do have some substitutes! So, without further ado, here’s a rundown of the best substitutes for capers!
1. Pickled Nasturtium Seeds/Pods
Nasturtium seeds, or “poor man’s capers” are an ideal substitute for traditional capers and offer much of the same flavour as the real deal. Whereas they do require a bit of work to harvest and to pickle, they do make an ideal substitute for the thrifty among us. And fear not, the process of pickling the seeds/pods is relatively simple whether you have experience or not!
Simply pick around 1 cup of the nasturtium (in spring or summer), wash them thoroughly and then the pickling process can begin. Bring a small saucepan with water, salt, vinegar, and sugar to a boil and pour over the cleaned seeds in an 8oz. jar. Add a bay leaf and seal the jar, storing it in a cool, dark place until they are ready in a week or so. It’s that simple! After opening, the jar should be stored in the fridge where you can pick away at it to your hearts content. If you find the flavour a bit too brash and peppery, you can always rinse the seeds down before using in a dish.
Overall, these are probably the closest you can get to the real thing!
2. Green Olives
Believe it or not, it is actually possible to trick yourself into believing that green olives are in fact capers. To pull this off, we recommend visiting your local olive bar, or simply selecting some high-quality olives at your supermarket. Olives with the pit still inside generally possess more of the ‘bitter’ flavour that you’re trying to replicate, so go for those if applicable.
Due to the size difference between capers and green olives, some chopping will be necessary to disguise the little switcheroo that you’ve done. Asides from that though, the olive is salty and savoury enough, with enough of a briny tang, that your covert swap may well go unnoticed!
We generally prefer Sicilian olives for this purpose. Here’s a quick review of one brand we recommend.
There are several brands of adequate olive producers out there ranging across a multitude of different countries. But, for us, these were far above simply being adequate – with much of their customer base in agreement.
- They’re not too salty, which can ruin the taste of an olive.
- Despite getting these delivered over thousands of miles, they retained their integrity.
- The texture is just the right amount of firm, and the flavour is incomparable.
- Weighing in at over 5lbs, they’re a bit of an investment.
3. Green Peppercorns
Speaking from a solely aesthetic standpoint; you can’t really get closer to matching the look of a caper than using green peppercorns. They’re nearly an exact doppelganger! They are also nowhere near as powerful as their black, white, or pink counterparts. Because of this, they can be used rather convincingly as a substitute straight from the jar.
However, if you really want to go all out on this one, we’d recommend either purchasing or making your own pickled green peppercorns. This way, you can really add so much more to the flavour. Simply pickle in water, salt, and lemon and you can match the mouthfeel and tanginess of traditional caper-infused dishes at home.
For those willing to splash out a little more, we recommend these:
These green peppercorns are the absolute height of decadence and are actually quite versatile. They make for excellent capers and are quite reasonably priced considering their excellent quality. They make for thoroughly high-quality sauces but are equally as useful as a simple garnish or condiment.
- Great texture and taste.
- Wonderfully fresh feel, despite being canned.
- Broad range of uses from sauces, savoury dishes, and even sweet treats.
- Can be out of stock relatively frequently.
Now, we know what you’re thinking here. Using a type of fish to substitute for a plant product is pretty ‘out there’, right? Well, maybe not as much so as you would think. In terms of flavour, the humble and often overlooked anchovy has a lot to offer when it comes to mimicking the caper.
They come packed with saltiness and umami, which can prove quite convincing when it comes to pulling off a switch. Simply douse them in a healthy spritz of lemon before adding them to the dish of your choosing. Whatever you do though, don’t overdo it. Comparatively, a little bit of anchovy goes a lot further than the caper.
When it comes to picking a recommendation, there’s a lot of very good brands out there. But for pure strength in flavour, we’re going to suggest these:
Considering that the ingredient we’re trying to replace is a Mediterranean staple, what better region to source its substitute than here? Anchovies are central to so many Mediterranean dishes, and for a good reason. They process them perfectly, packing them in salt, leaving their flavour totally pure. Because of this, these are considerably stronger than your average supermarket varieties, so you need to use less.
· Packed in salt, meaning that no liquids are present to draw from or add to the flavour.
· So fresh they come out of the container whole.
· Goes a surprisingly long way. You’ll have these for a while.
· If you don’t remember to scrape off the salt, you could be in for a nasty first bite!
We hope that you found this guide on substitutes for capers to be a valuable and informative resource for seeking out alternative options. There are of course several viable options out there which we didn’t get around to; the humble dill pickle being one.
We invite you to review the following question and answer section for some additional information that could be helpful to you.
Why would you need to substitute capers in the first place?
Though rare, capers have been known to cause allergic reactions in people, with symptoms ranging from a mild rash to more severe symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting. Should you or one of yours be one of these unfortunate people who suffer from this reaction, it is pertinent to consider an alternative. Asides from this, some simply do not appreciate the texture, whereas they may appreciate one of the aforementioned substitutes instead.
Why not just leave out that part of the recipe?
In every dish the caper features in, it serves a vital role. It’s there to add a bit of tang to counterbalance with the creaminess or buttery-ness of what it’s sharing a plate with. I, for one, can’t imagine a chicken piccata without them or a close substitute.