Capers provide a burst of salty, tangy, lemony flavor to dishes. The cut-through seasoning they provide can’t be understated. Flavorsome sauces, pasta puttanesca, pickles, salmon, salads, chicken piccata and New York style bagels all rise to a new level with capers added.
It’s the intensity of flavor that causes capers to be loved and loathed. Try feeding them to any child who hasn’t been brought up on them, I dare you. They’re rather go hungry than feast on those vile small green buds.
There are two main reasons you may be looking for a substitute for capers in your next dish:
- the taste doesn’t appeal
- no capers are available to use
In this article we’ll provide a selection of alternatives to capers that’ll help you finish that recipe. You’ll need to keep an open mind with these options; capers are a unique tasting ingredient that you’ll never replace 100%.
Did you know?
Capers are small fruit that are produced by a thorny plant known as Capparis Spinosa, a member of the cabbage family. They are harvested before ripening and can vary in size from half the size of a pea through to the size of an olive. The smaller option is what you’ll typically find on the supermarket shelf. The larger variety have been allowed to mature and are known as caper berries.
Infographic: 8 caper substitutes
The 8 best replacements for capers
1. Green olives
Recommended option if you enjoy capers but don’t have any in the kitchen.
Green olives are an excellent alternative to capers as they share similar salty bitter flavor profiles. You can use green olives in casseroles, sauces and salads. An added bonus is that their color is very similar. Slice the olives into small pieces and they’ll easily take the place of capers as a garnish on salmon or featured in beef tartare.
2. Black Olives
Recommended option if you enjoy capers and don’t have any green olives.
Black olives have spent longer on the tree before being picked resulting is a softer, less intense flavored fruit. They will provide your dish with a much less intense burst of salty, bitter taste. To get the best possible flavor, buy olives from your local delicatessen rather than buying the ones sold in jars.
3. Nasturtium Buds
Recommended option for the creative foodie.
The nasturtium is an edible flower that can be used as a backup plan when capers aren’t to your liking. Rather than going for a bitter taste, choose nasturtium for a strong peppery flavor.
You can buy this plant from gardening stores and some specialist food sellers stock it too. Your best option may be to simply grow your own nasturtium so that you have this uncommon cooking ingredient on tap!
The secret to using nasturtium is to pick the buds while they’re still young and green. Pop them into a small jar of vinegar, onion, dill and garlic until you need to use them. When it comes time to cook, remember that the nasturtium flower makes an impressive looking garnish.
If you’d like to get loads more ideas for edible flowers be sure to check out this guide to the best edible flowers.
4. Fresh thyme
Recommended option for the herb lover.
Fresh thyme is a pungent herb that carries a lemony, bitter taste similar to capers. Side by side, they won’t taste the same; but slow cooked in a casserole or sauce, thyme will impart similar flavors. The biggest difference will be that you won’t get those intense bursts of saltiness that you get from eating a whole caper. For some, that’s a positive!
Fresh thyme won’t work in recipes where capers play a leading role in the dish. Think beef tartare. As you can imagine, tiny pieces of raw meat combined with raw thyme doesn’t sound appealing.
5. Green peppercorns
Recommended option for visual impact.
Green peppercorns are the unripe version of a black peppercorn. Because they’ve been harvested early, you’ll avoid the extreme spiciness associated with black peppercorns.
Choosing green peppercorns as a caper substitute is a good option if you’re trying to mimic the visual appearance of capers. They both look very similar and the taste of these mild peppercorns wouldn’t throw your dish out of balance.
6. Dill pickles
Recommended option for tartar sauce, salads and antipasto platters.
Dill pickles, or cornichons, offer a combination of sweet and sour in one crunchy bite. They are a tasty addition when sliced up and added to tartar sauce, pasta salads, salads or on the antipasto platter. The flavor profile of dill pickles are different from capers as their texture is crisper and they lack the intense bitter taste. This lack of intensity makes them a less intense alternative to capers.
Recommended option for adding salty flavor to slow cooked meals.
The caper and anchovy taste miles apart. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use anchovies for a boost of umami and saltiness in your next casserole. Unless you enjoy a fishy flavor, don’t go overboard with them. You can experiment how many to add but generally, one anchovy is enough. They are also a nice addition to Italian pasta sauces.
8. Caper berries
Recommended option for a milder flavor.
Pickled caper berries are larger than capers and contain seeds. They have a much less intense flavor when compared to capers; this makes them good alternative if you don’t like overpowering ingredients. The biggest obstacle you may find with caper berries is the difficulty sourcing them as they aren’t common in supermarkets.
Common recipes using capers and the recommended substitute
|Salmon garnish||Chopped green olives or green peppercorns|
|Piccata||Fresh thyme or green olives|
|Tartar sauce||Dill pickle|
|Beef tartare||Chopped green olives or dill pickles|
Finding a substitute for capers isn’t a big challenge. There are plenty of good alternatives that can be found in your local supermarket or the cupboard at home. If you enjoy the taste of capers but don’t have any, your best option in most recipes will be green olives. They’re versatile enough to be slow cooked and can be diced then used as a garnish uncooked. You’ll get a similar intense salty flavor.
If you don’t enjoy capers and are looking at options to replace them in your recipe, consider thyme, green peppercorns and dill pickles. These three options will cover most recipes, whether you need a cold garnish or a flavor enhancer in a slow cooked dish.
It’s important to remember that the back-up options we’ve provided will not perfectly imitate capers. Most options will provide a less pungent flavor with the exception on anchovies. If you decide to use them in a casserole then be sparing – one will usually be enough.