National Caviar Day is Monday, July 18! This ancient delicacy has been around for centuries, but it remains cloaked in mystery for some. So, let’s talk caviar!
Caviar is processed, salted fish roe (eggs). There are several types of caviar and many varieties of fish that contribute to this gourmet treat, but true caviar comes from sturgeon, primarily Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga.
Sturgeon is a prehistoric, scale-less fish that lives in the Northern hemisphere from roughly North America to China. They are sometimes referred to as “living fossils” and every species, nearly 26 in all, is on the endangered species list. The largest remaining deposit of sturgeon is located in the Caspian Sea, which is shared by Russian and Iranian producers. This is where 85% of today’s wild caviar originates.
The sale of Beluga caviar, the most highly prized of the three sturgeon species, has been banned by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service since 2005. Wild ossetra sturgeon have been harvested to near extinction and their caviar is currently unavailable.
Caviar from any source other than sturgeon must be designated by the fish it comes from, such as salmon caviar or paddlefish caviar. If it simply says ‘caviar’ on the container, it’s from sturgeon, or at least it should be. Beware of fake caviar; bootleg versions are actually a thing.
Due to decades of overfishing, sturgeon caviar has become increasingly scarce, which has opened up the door for other kinds of roe to gain in popularity.
According to some reports, these farmed fish swim in perfectly balanced water, are fed an ideal diet, and have no predators. Their roe is harvested at the ideal time for premium quality and consistently good caviar.
Another alternative to traditional caviar harvesting is known as cruelty-free caviar or correct caviar.
This method, is being practiced at a small farm in Loxstedt, Germany, called Vivace GmbH, and involves first viewing a sturgeon’s eggs by ultrasound. If they are deemed ready, a signaling protein is administered to the sturgeon several days before the egg harvest. This process basically “induces labor” and releases the eggs from a membranous sack in the belly cavity. At that point, the eggs can be pumped from the belly with gentle massaging. The process can be repeated every 15 months or so throughout a sturgeon’s lifetime, which may last decades.
Caviar ranges in color from light to dark gray to brown-black. Red/orange caviar is actually called roe, because it does not come from the Sturgeon family of fish.
There are four types of Caviar, which refer to their processing methods:
The first is the Malossol method, preferred by connoisseurs. Malossol means ‘little salt’ or ‘lightly salted’ and refers to fresh caviar with less than 5% salt. Modern fresh caviar often has much less, about 3.5%. The term is sometimes used to describe any high quality caviar.
- The first is the Malossol method, preferred by connoisseurs. Malossol means ‘little salt’ or ‘lightly salted’ and refers to fresh caviar with less than 5% salt. Modern fresh caviar often has much less, about 3.5%. The term is sometimes used to describe any high quality caviar.
- The second caviar type and quality is Salted Caviar, sometimes called ‘semi-preserved’ caviar. It can contain up to 8% salt. The more salt, the longer the shelf life, but taste may be compromised.
- Pressed Caviar is next in quality. Made from too-soft, damaged, broken and overly ripe eggs, it is treated, highly salted, and pressed to a jam-like consistency. Once the only method available for preserving caviar, this is still the favorite of many connoisseurs for its strong, concentrated flavor.
- The last of the caviar types is Pasteurized Caviar. Fresh caviar is heat-treated and vacuum packed in glass jars for much longer preservation. Both taste and texture may be affected.
Grades of caviar
Caviar is generally graded by the size and texture of its beads (larger, firmer beads that pop in your mouth are more rare, and more expensive), and by flavor. As a general rule, more mildly flavored caviars tend to be more rare. However, the species of the fish, how it was raised, and how the caviar was treated and matured can vastly affect the final flavor. For each type of sturgeon, there are two grades of caviar.
- Grade 1 caviar features firm, large, intact eggs, with fine color and flavor.
- Grade 2 caviar is still delicious, but is less delicate, and not as perfectly formed.
Color criteria also comes into play. For beluga caviar, “000” indicates silver or light gray, “00” means medium gray and “0” is gray. Light colors are more rare than dark colors—but color doesn’t impact the taste. Damaged roe doesn’t make the grade at all, but it can still be eaten.
The most rare and expensive kind of caviar is golden caviar. Also known as “royal caviar” it is thought to be the eggs that would produce albino osetra. This caviar, a pale off-yellow color, is found in only one in 1,000 osetra sturgeon.
How to enjoy caviar
Caviar is rich in calcium and phosphorus, as well as protein, selenium, iron, magnesium, and Vitamins B12 and B6. Good quality caviar should have distinct eggs that separate when you roll them on the roof of your mouth. They need to pop, rather than taste mushy. When you open a tin, the caviar should be shiny, each egg glistening, not oily or murky.
Serving caviar with silver utensils is considered a sin in most circles because the metal adversely affects the flavor. Use a wooden spoon or plastic spoon for serving, or if you want to splurge, go traditional and buy one made of mother of pearl.
When the caviar is in your mouth, let the individual eggs spread on your tongue first, gently rolling them against the roof of your mouth while you breath in through your nose to get the initial aroma.
Once the aroma has set in, gently crush the eggs, feeling them pop against your soft palate, releasing their silky contents. This is where the primary flavor of the caviar is release. Similar to oyster, try and identify as many flavors as you can. Buttery, rich, nutty, earthy, salty, fishy are all common descriptors for caviar.
- The traditional accompaniments to caviar are Champagne, sparkling wine or ice cold vodka. Heavy red or white wine with will compete with the flavor.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy quality gourmet caviar. American caviar prices are more reasonable than those of importers, and offer unique flavors.
More than 80 percent of American caviar comes from the Sacramento Valley. This is where a California-white-sturgeon domestication research program at UC Davis, started in the 1980s by a Soviet scientist, launched the sturgeon farming industry. Farms have also emerged in both North Carolina and Florida, growing Russian sturgeon species instead of the California variety.
Listed below is a selection of American caviars for your consideration.
- Paddlefish Caviar has clear, glossy beads, buttery flavor, and steel gray to light or even golden-gray roe, this is a good substitute for Beluga caviar. It is sometimes marketed as American caviar.
- Hackleback caviar combines the sweet, nutty, and buttery characteristics of other caviars. Its roe is a rich, glossy black color of medium size, firm.
- Bowfin caviar, is more commonly know by its Cajun name, Choupique, is considered another of the better substitutes for Beluga. It has a distinctively sturgeon essence, with a mild flavor and firm, black beads, although smaller in size than Beluga.
- Salmon caviar has bright golden-orange or reddish-orange caviar and is the favorite of sushi chefs everywhere. Its juicy medium to large sized roe, even larger than Beluga, has a distinctive popping characteristic in the mouth and a fairly intense salmon flavor. And because salmon have scales, salmon caviar is considered a kosher food.
- Whitefish caviar is small-grained, almost crunchy caviar of the salmon family, with a distinctive natural golden color and mild flavor. Whitefish roe is sometimes infused with ginger, truffle or saffron flavors for added interest.
- Trout caviar is said to be good enough to eat off the spoon. It has large, golden-orange beads and a subtle flavor. It has a nice ‘pop’ like salmon roes.
- Lumpfish caviar is very inexpensive yet versatile caviar from cold, Nordic waters. It is good-tasting caviar with very fine-grained, crunchy roe and intense briney flavor that is ideal for appetizers and garnishes. It comes in black and red, and is one of the pasteurized caviar types.
- Capelin caviar is a tiny-grained roe similar to lumpfish, but chewy. Choose red or black varieties. This one is pasteurized and artificially colored. The dye helps keep the roe a uniform color and should be gently rinsed off before using it in a recipe.