What can I use as a substitute for capers? – that is the question! Out of capers and need an alternative? We’ve got you! No matter what you’re making – chicken piccata, tarter sauce, or a tangy salad dressing we’ve got a replacement for capers for you!
Let’s set the scene: you’re on a weekend, and there’s not much to do, so you set out to make a Mediterranean-style dinner. You have all the ingredients on hand for a scrumptious lemon chicken piccata, but as you open the fridge, you realize that, heck, you forgot to buy capers.
If you’re short on those tiny flavor bombs and don’t want to go to the grocery store just yet, don’t worry — there are plenty of other ingredients you can use as a replacement for capers instead. In fact, you probably have a couple of them in your fridge right now! So just get back to your kitchen and keep prepping that chicken piccata, because today we’re going to cover the best capers substitutes.
What Are Capers Exactly?
Before we start listing substitutes, first things first: what are capers? In a nutshell, they are the unopened flower buds of the caper bush (Capparis spinose), a plant that grows mainly in the Mediterranean region. However, rumor has it that its origin was not around the mighty Mediterranean Sea, but rather around central and western Asia.
Capers are similar to green olives — small, round, and dark green. Their flavor is quite bitter by nature, so over time, our ancestors found a way to make them more appetizing and preserve them. Yup, we are talking about curing.
There are several ways to cure capers, but the most common ones are dry salting and pickling them in brine. Their flavors pop out more when they are packed in dry salt, but pickling them is a cheaper process. Either way, they will always end up tasting really good.
P.S: If you want to know more about what capers are, where they come from, and how you can use them, check out our deep dive into these small but mighty spices. You’ll end up loving them!
What do Capers Taste Similar To?
Capers have an intense flavor. They are salty, sour, and briny. Some describe it as vinegary and pungent, while others say it is lemony, zesty, and even floral. Few ingredients have a flavor profile as specific as that, but the one that matches it the most is green olives. Actually, the flavor of capers is like a cross between green olives, dill pickles, and tiny little flowers.
This might lead you to think that green olives and dill pickles are the only alternatives to capers, but they are not. There are many other things that can act as a replacement for capers, and while they don’t check all the flavor boxes, they can serve as a substitute for capers. There are caperberries, green peppercorns, nasturtium seeds, and more.
Best Substitutes for Capers
There’s nothing like the real thing, but there are plenty of caper substitutes out there if you don’t have them on hand or want to experiment with other flavors. Even if you’re not a big fan of capers but still want a somewhat similar flavor profile, these alternatives will fit the bill:
- Caperberries: Capers’ big sisters are larger, milder, and crunchier than their small counterparts. However, they serve as a good alternative if you need briny notes in your food — especially if you don’t like overpowering spices. Since caperberries are bigger than capers, use them in a 1:2 ratio.
- Green olives: There’s a reason some caper connoisseurs claim they have an olivey flavor, and that’s because they do taste a lot like green olives. A tad milder than capers, but similar nonetheless. In our opinion, this is the best replacement for capers in pretty much any dish, not only because of how much they resemble each other but because it is the easiest to get. Just roughly chop them, and also use them in a 1:2 ratio.
- Black olives: Just like green olives, black olives are salty, tangy, and very similar to capers, only a little milder. The best thing about them is that they are darker in color, so they will provide a color contrast to your dishes. Some use them in a 1:1 ratio, but due to their size, we suggest you use them in a 1:2 ratio.
- Kalamata olives: As you can see, olives are the king of alternatives to capers. Kalamata olives have a richer flavor than green and black olives, and also give a color contrast to any meal. If you want a burst of flavor, add them in a 1:1 ratio.
- Nasturtium seeds/buds: While nasturtium seeds/buds are somewhat hard to find, they are the perfect replacement if you don’t have capers or if you just don’t like them. They come from the nasturtium plant and can be used in a variety of dishes where peppery flavors are needed without the saltiness and sharpness of capers. You can find them at your local florist or garden center and pickle them yourself, or find them already pickled in some supermarkets. Use them in a 1:1 ratio.
- Pickled jalapeño peppers: Speaking of peppery flavors, pickled jalapeño peppers are great if you’re a fan of heat and sour. As far as portions go, we can’t give you an exact amount because everyone’s heat meter is different. Just add what you think you can handle!
- Green peppercorns: What’s more peppery than peppercorns? This green type is just pepper in its purest state — fresh and unripe. It’s not as spicy as black peppercorns (rather milder), but can be used to replicate the visual appeal of capers. However, you can pickle it to add a bit more flavor. You can use green peppercorns in a 1:1 ratio.
- Anchovies: We know many people don’t like anchovies, but don’t close this tab! They are packed with umami flavor and saltiness, which is perfect if you want to add complexity to a dish without using capers. However, keep in mind that anchovies are very salty and, well, fishy — so use them in small amounts.
- Dill pickles: They are one of the safest backup plans if you don’t have capers at home. Briny and vinegary, dill pickles share several similarities with capers, but with a crunchy plus that never hurts. Feel free to add them in a 1:1 ratio, they won’t unbalance your food.
- Thyme: If you are an herb lover, the strong flavor and aroma of thyme can be a very good addition to your dishes. Of course, its texture is nowhere near that of capers, but it is bitter and lemony, two flavors that capers also have. You can use it in a 1:1 ratio.
- Lemon: If you don’t want to add extra textures to your dishes but need a fresh, lemony zing, you can turn to good ol’ lemon juice. Just follow your taste to know how much you need to add.
Common Dishes That Use Capers
Of course, it goes without saying that chicken piccata is one of the most well-known dishes that use capers. But besides that one, many other dishes benefit from the salty spice, such as:
- Pasta. Puttanesca, trout pasta
- Salads. Capellini salad, panzanella
- Sauces/salad dressings. Tartar sauce, remoulade sauce, caper-lemon vinaigrette
- Seafood. Fish piccata, smoked salmon, scallops
- Stews. Eggplant caponata, fish stew — & more.
They are also commonly used as ingredients in steak tartare, as garnishes in bagels with lox, and as toppings in pizzas. That’s right; capers are very versatile!
Capers Substitute In Pasta
You’ll have to step out of your comfort zone for this one, but hear us out: anchovies can be a decent replacement for capers in pasta. Several pasta sauces already use anchovies as a main ingredient, but if you use them as a secondary ingredient, you can benefit from their oily, salty taste. It’s not quite like capers, but they still add lots of flavor.
If you are going to use them, remember — a little goes a long way. If you add too many anchovies, you will unbalance your dish.
Capers Substitute For Chicken Piccata
When talking about capers, it is impossible not to mention chicken piccata. This recipe calls for chicken breasts, capers, a blend of spices, and a buttery, lemony sauce to make an utterly delicious combo. Some say that without capers there is no chicken piccata, but there is a substitute that can do the trick — olives.
Both green, black, and kalamata work. All you need to do is try to get the ones that aren’t stuffed and chop them. You’ll end up with a tangy, salty, vinegary taste, quite similar to capers.
Substitute For Capers In Tartar Sauce
While chicken piccata is one of the biggest users of the zesty notes of capers, tartar sauce is also one of them. A good alternative for capers if you are preparing this creamy sauce are dill pickles — small ingredients that you most likely already have in your fridge.
They are not as intense as capers, but if you experiment with ratios, you can get good amounts of saltiness, bitterness, and a touch of crunchiness.
Capers Substitute In Fish
The olivey and pungent kick of capers is a great match for fish, especially fatty ones, such as salmon. But when you’ve forgotten to restock on capers or don’t like how they taste, you can use green peppercorns, green olives, or fresh thyme.
All of these can be used as toppings, but we recommend that you add the fresh thyme early in the cooking process. That way, the fish will absorb its flavor and delicious fragrance.
Substitute For Capers In Salad Dressing
Capers are the star of many salad dressings, but if you don’t have them on hand, you can resort to plain lemon juice, pickled nasturtium seeds/buds, or, if you’re feeling in the mood for some heat, pickled jalapeños.
Salads are like a blank canvas on which you can experiment with hundreds of different dressings. Most of the ones that call for capers will work just as well if you make them with other alternatives, so feel free to experiment.
There’s no doubt that capers are unique and add complexity to any dish. But while their flavor may be tricky to replicate perfectly, there are several alternatives out there that can match it — you just have to get a little creative.
Caper berries (a.k.a. capers’ big sisters) are a good capers substitute, green olives work for almost any recipe, and dill pickles can also do the trick. You can even use anchovies!
So, next time you need to elevate your dishes to the next level with a tangy twist, feel free to use any of the ingredients above! Your lemon chicken piccata will turn out just as yummy.