Lemon Caper Butter: An elegantly simple sauce for fish and more

by Terry B on September 17, 2008

Lemon Caper Butter adds a lively, delicate finish to Sole Fillets—or cod or chicken breasts or turkey cutlets… Recipe below.

We all have certain little tricks, techniques and simple recipes up our sleeves—versatile weapons in our culinary arsenal we can turn to when we want to liven up or elevate a dish or a meal. A healthy sprinkle of herbes de Provence when roasting chicken, for instance, or [especially lately for me] whisking a little flour and butter together in a hot skillet to make a faux roux to thicken a sauce.

And then there’s lemon caper butter. Quick and easy to throw together at the last minute, this sauce lends a bright, complex touch to simply prepared, light main courses. In its simplest form, it combines the undeniable richness of butter with the brightness of lemon and the briny tang of capers. Most often used with seafood dishes, lemon caper butter also plays nicely with chicken breasts, turkey cutlets or even veal scaloppine—anything light and fairly mild in flavor.

I say simplest form because it seems there are as many ideas about how to make this sauce as there are cooks. Various recipes called for everything from shallots to parsley, garlic, tomatoes, chives, pine nuts… one recipe even included sour cream! I’m sure some of these additions would produce delicious sauces, but what I wanted to taste was the ingredients the sauce was named for.

Capers: The smaller the better

First, what are they? Capers are the pickled, unripened flower buds of Capparis spinosa. According to Food Network, they’re the “buds of a thorny, trailing shrub that grows like a weed all over the Mediterranean. It’s a stubborn, ornery plant, difficult to cultivate, with a preference for dry, stony places.” After the buds are harvested, they’re dried in the sun and pickled in vinegar or wine, with plenty of salt. The curing brings out their tangy flavor, which has been compared to green olives. To me, though, there’s none of the bitterness I associate with olives.

As Food Network says, “The quality of capers is inversely related to their size; the smaller, the better. The best, sold as nonpareilles or surfines, have an extra intensity and cost to match.” Capers are a staple throughout the Mediterranean, but even in American supermarkets, you often have a variety to choose from. All things being equal, buy the smallest you can find.

Besides a lovely, delicate flavor, lemon caper butter offers the benefit of coming together very quickly. For this post, I served it over sole fillets and only began assembling its prepped ingredients in a sauce pan after I’d cooked the fish on one side and turned it.

Sole Fillets with Lemon Caper Butter
Serves 2

For the fish:
2 sole fillets, about 6 ounces each [or other mild white fish]
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon capers, drained [see Kitchen Notes]
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

Cook the fish. Heat a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Season fish with salt and pepper [you can season both sides—I just seasoned the “presentation” side, the fleshy side of the fillet, as opposed to the side where the skin had been]. Add the oil to the skillet and sauté the fillets one one side for about 3 minutes, then carefully turn and sauté until just cooked through—this took about three minutes with the the fillets I had [see Kitchen Notes]. Transfer cooked fillets to individual serving plates. You can tent with foil or not.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. When you turn the fish, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. I clarified my butter, removing it from the heat when it was melted and skimming off the solids that formed. You can do this or not—it won’t especially affect the taste, but it will enhance the appearance. Return the butter to the heat and add the capers. Let them cook for 45 seconds to a minute, until they become fragrant. Add the lemon juice and zest and remove from heat. Stir to combine and spoon over fillets. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

Sole fillets, delicate in more ways than one. This lovely white fish not only has a delicate flavor, it becomes positively fragile as it cooks [many mild white-fleshed fish share this annoying quality]. So turn it and plate it as carefully as possible, but don’t sweat it if it breaks up on you—even if you need to photograph it. I’m going to try to heed my own advice next time I cook this otherwise wonderful fish.

Caper care. Food network also provided this valuable tip: “Capers will keep indefinitely so long as they remain submerged in their own brine. So take care to leave the brine behind when spooning capers from their jar. If they’re not submerged, use them up faster, but don’t top off the jar with vinegar—it’ll make them spoil faster.” And if you’re looking for a delicious way to use them up, try my Pasta Shells with Italian Tuna and Artichokes.


{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) September 17, 2008 at 11:15 am

We are both in a fish-and-capers mood this week, as I’ve posted about capers, too — prompted by the discovery of multiple jars in my refrigerator. I wish I could find the salt-packed capers in my local market; I think they have a very different and equally wonderful flavor. And yes, they do seem to keep forever… but don’t ask me how I know that.

Merry September 17, 2008 at 12:35 pm

I am so glad you posted this. I am so fed up with sole being completely boring whatever I do . The lemon caper combinations seems perfect for a clean taste, bringing out the best of the natural flavoring of the dish.
I am not sure that this will persuade me that I like sole, but I can definitely see this working well on salmon or chicken.

Monica September 17, 2008 at 2:19 pm

I can almost taste that sole, what a beautiful combo of flavors.

katrina September 17, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Oh! I totally forgot about capers and how tangy and delicious they are! Must try this…………

Terry B September 17, 2008 at 5:43 pm

How funny, Lydia! I have to say, your roast halibut with orange-caper gremolata sounds delicious.

Merry—The fish we’re totally bored with is tilapia. But lemon caper butter might even liven it up.

Thanks, Monica!

katrina—Do give it a try. By the way, I was delighted to find your lovely blog this morning.

Toni September 17, 2008 at 7:20 pm

I absolutely adore lemon butter caper sauce. It’s a simple, elegant sauce that makes any kind of protein taste better. For me, it’s all about the capers. My late husband said he found them growing all over the ancient walls in Italy, but I never saw them when I was there. Maybe they weren’t in season?

diva September 18, 2008 at 12:53 pm

my favourite easy peasy combo for fish is right here! thank you for posting on it ahhhh. and i just adore capers. great pics.

Anne Lossing September 18, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Hi Terry,
What a coincidence!! I was just thinking this morning that the perfect way to serve that left-over piece of tuna loaf that I have in the refrigerator would be with a lemon caper sauce. And playing around with Stumble-upon I came across a picture of this dish on a “Tastespotting” page of FoodBuzz. Anyway, I now have my recipe for our lunch, and I love the style of your blog and am signing on to receive your weekly updates. Thanks!

michelle @ TNS September 18, 2008 at 3:49 pm

that’s one fine looking piece of fish.

i have their weird thing with capers where i like the flavor they give but i don’t like to eat the actual capers…same with olives. luckily, my SO loves both, so i can keep the yummy butter sauce and scrape all the capers onto his plate.

Terry B September 18, 2008 at 4:24 pm

Toni—No idea. For something so widely consumed, they seem like an odd, non-production-friendly plants, don’t they?

diva—Thanks! And I love the phrase easy peasy, by the way.

Anne—Well, you’ve now connected Blue Kitchen to yet another country! Can’t wait to explore your rainforest recipes and learn more about the challenges and joys of cooking in Guatemala!

michelle—Always nice when the food habits of our SOs complement and help each other instead of colliding head on.

Julie September 19, 2008 at 2:04 am

I really need a recipe like this!

We always, oddly, have capers on hand.

Julie September 19, 2008 at 3:24 pm

I just had sole with lemon caper butter sauce at a restaurant this past weekend and it was delicious. While I was eating it I was wondering to myself why I’ve never made it at home and thinking I had to do so. Nice to have your recipe.

maggie September 19, 2008 at 3:42 pm

mmm…my fiance thinks he doesn’t like capers but I bet he’d like this…nothing that a little butter can’t help :)

Terry B September 19, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Julie—As Lydia said, they do seem to keep forever, so most of us probably have some lurking in the back of the fridge. This is one way to use them up!

Other Julie—And I just saw a mention somewhere of skate wing with lemon caper butter. Any delicate fish will play nicely with it.

maggie—And if not, you can scrape the capers onto your plate and just let him have the lemon butter.

Erin September 19, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Ooh, Terry, I LOVE capers and am always looking for new ways to use them. I don’t buy white fish like sole very often, but I think this would be a simple, tasty way to dress it up!

katie September 19, 2008 at 7:31 pm

I love capers. I just had a caper and smoked salmon pizza for lunch the other day – on freme fraiche, not tomato sauce.
As to the sole, I usually leave it whole, and have had the skeleton come out of the fish when I turn it – using my fingers, holding the tail….

katie September 19, 2008 at 7:32 pm

That would be ‘creme fraiche’ fingers aren’t working!

Mike September 20, 2008 at 2:07 pm

I love capers and agree that this sauce can do wonderful things for fish. I am also with you on the aggravation of this and other overly fragile white fish…I have a few dishes I’m debating ever posting given the degree to which my fish fell apart…lol, more like fish confetti….so my hat goes off to you as yours looks great!

Susan from Food Blogga September 21, 2008 at 12:53 am

What’s so great is that it’s a simple sauce that elevates fish to something special. ps-I don’t think I’d go for the recipe with sour cream.

Sylvia September 21, 2008 at 11:10 pm

I love capers, and with fish are so good and tasty. Just capes, lemons, and olive oil . Usually use capers in vitello tonnato . Great and informative post Terry.

ann September 22, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Sole is so delicious, and so intimidating, and yet so easy. It’s the conundrum fish… I love it with capers and butter and lemon, So delish. I need to make this again soon.

Gloria September 23, 2008 at 3:09 pm

Love Fish and this look so tasty!! Love it Gloria

We Are Never Full September 30, 2008 at 3:11 pm

one of the best, most simple go-to sauces ever. it’s creamy, salty and briny. mmmmmm.

if you love the small non-pareille capers, you must, must, must try this sauce out with caper berries. they are large and almost look like a mini-fig. they are expensive, but worth it.

Donna March 4, 2009 at 8:19 pm

I am probably the worst cook in the universe, just ask my son. I was wondering if the Lemon Caper Butter Sauce would go well on Sea Scallops? Am I completely out of my mind?

Terry B March 4, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Donna—I think it would be absolutely delicious with scallops. And if your son complains about your cooking, tell him to get in the kitchen.

Ryan Vidor February 5, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Thanks for this! Great recipe – we are having a dinner party for some teachers and you have taught us well!


shirl July 29, 2010 at 3:54 am

had this sauce before on halibut fish. so very good! now i have the recipe. going to try it on my sole which i dearly love and on bass fish! thank you!

Secret_Ingredient February 22, 2013 at 12:45 am

See the Gold Cookbook (de Gouy). He says wipe a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar on delicate fish 20 minutes before cooking. It partially cooks the surface of the fish and prevents it from falling apart on turning or serving.

J May 5, 2014 at 6:24 pm

I was looking for a recipe to liven up sole, and came across this one. We love chicken piccata, and this sauce looks pretty similar to me. I recently found fish forks and fish knives in my cutlery box, and thought that I should try to plan a somewhat elegant meal, as an excuse to use them. So thanks for this. Now I need to decide what to serve them with…rice seems kind of boring. Perhaps a pilaf.

Terry B May 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Thanks, J! A pilaf would be nice. Also maybe some fingerling potatoes roasted with a little tarragon.

Sherrill May 8, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Οn va vous dire que ϲe n’est guère erroné !!

Val May 8, 2016 at 1:50 am

I made this wonderful tasty Cod dish for my wife and she loved it!
I added my own little touches like steamed baby carrots and seasoned chicken rice and it was perfect.
I still can’t believe how easy and quick it was to make, thanks for the great recipe.

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