What’s the Best Substitute for Capers? Try These 9 Ideas

substitute for capers

It’s finally chicken piccata night at your place. That is, until you realize you’re out of capers. You may not need to speed to the supermarket just yet, though. Looking for the best substitute for capers? You probably have a few in your fridge right this second.

So, What Are Capers?

Capers are the pickled flower buds of a Mediterranean shrub called the Capparis spinosa. They’re typically preserved in a salt and water brine or packed in a mixture of brine and vinegar. Some fancier capers are cured in salt. They’re slightly vegetal and sweet, and forwardly acidic, tangy, sour, bitter and salty. Capers can brighten up everything from eggs to antipasti. They add complexity and a lip-smacking punch to tons of chicken and fish dishes (we see you, tartar sauce). They also work wonders in salad dressings, sauces, veggies and pastas.

The best part? Capers keep indefinitely as long as they stay submerged in their own brine, so grab a jar at the store the next time you see one. Until then, here are nine substitutes for capers to use in a pinch.

1. Green olives

They’re salty, they’re acidic, they’re savory, they’re buried somewhere in your fridge—what more can you ask for? Cut them down to caper-like size to hide your secret swap (we won’t tell). Black or Kalamata olives can also bring a pop of brine, but with less caper-like bitterness. Due to the difference in size, substitute one olive for every two capers.

2. Lemon

What a difference a squeeze of fresh lemon makes. You’ll get a similar acidity and zip. Add a few cracks of freshly-ground black pepper to the lemon juice for some bite and bitterness. Because lemon is intensely sour and acidic, substitute for capers by using your taste as a guide.  

3. Pickles

Dill pickles are a worthy swap, even if their signature crunch is a little more intense. If you don’t mind veering away from that dark green color scheme, pickled red onions offer the same vinegary jolt in a pretty pink package. Cut the pickles into caper-sized pieces and sub in equal amounts.

4. Green peppercorns

Visually, this substitute for capers is a solid doppelganger. Green peppercorns are less spicy and intense than black peppercorns, so you can use them without worrying they’ll throw off the dish. Use them straight from the jar, or pickle your own in water, salt and lemon. Sub green peppercorns for capers in equal amounts or use as a garnish.

5. Thyme

This herb has a distinct pungency and offers a caper-esque bitterness and notes of lemon. Add it early on (use less of dried or ground thyme than you would fresh) so the flavor has a chance to show off. The aroma isn’t too shabby, either. Substitute thyme for capers in slow-cooked dishes and sauces, but not in dishes where capers are the star.

6. Caper berries

Caper berries are what you get if you let those Mediterranean flower buds grow instead of turning them into capers prematurely. They’re bigger in size and milder in taste, but they’re a decent replacement. Since these are similar to olives in size, we’d suggest substituting one caper berry for every few capers.

7. Artichoke hearts

Buy them pickled or marinated. Aside from brininess, there’s also an earthy quality to artichokes that’ll add additional complexity to whatever you’re making. Drain and quarter these before adding to chicken, fish or pasta dishes, and measure to taste.

8. Anchovies

OK, fish and capers are pretty different. But they’re loaded with salt and umami, which can be just the ticket when you’re in a bind, especially with a spritz of lemon to round it out. Go easy on the anchovies, unless you really want to up the fishy flavor. A little goes a long way.

9. Nasturtium seeds

We know, if you don’t have capers it’s pretty unlikely you’ll have nasturtium seeds. But these peppery seeds are an uncanny substitute for capers. Pickle them yourself in a small jar with vinegar, garlic and dill. Leave it in the fridge until you need it (it’s likely sooner than you think). Replace capers with nasturtium seeds in equal amounts.

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...