Caviar is roe or eggs from the sturgeon family of fish. It's considered a delicacy, often eaten raw as an appetizer, with some caviar fetching a high price. Historically, the most prized types of caviar came from the Caspian and Black Seas, but due to overfishing, caviar is now produced around the world.
- Place of origin: Caspian and Black Seas
- Common varieties: beluga, osetra, sevruga, kaluga, sterlet
- Preparation: served chilled or on ice with blinis or toast points
- Shelf life: two weeks in the fridge (unpasteurized)
Caviar vs. Fish Roe
All female fish lay eggs to reproduce; therefore they all have roe. Not all fish roe is suitable for human consumption, however, and only sturgeon roe is considered caviar.
Sturgeon are saltwater anadromous fish (meaning they move from salt to freshwater to spawn). They are native to the Black and Caspian Seas between Europe and Asia as well as the Pacific Northwest and southern Atlantic coasts of the United States. Sturgeon can grow to more than 3,000 pounds but typically average about 60 pounds.
Other popular types of fish roe like salmon, trout, and flying fish are well loved and popular for topping sushi rolls, toast, and more. However, they are not considered caviar. Some types of fish roe have similar flavor and textural characteristics to caviar and can be used as a substitute.
The most-prized caviar comes from the beluga and osetra varieties of sturgeon. Beluga caviar is among the largest, rarest, and most expensive of all caviar. It typically can't be found in the U.S. due to overfishing and government regulations, but kaluga is a variety that's available stateside with a similar delicate buttery flavor and texture. Osetra tends to have a nutty, briny, fresh flavor, while sevruga has a strong flavor and snaps and pops in your mouth. Sterlet is similar to sevruga and is often mislabeled as such. Hackleback comes from a sturgeon in the Mississippi River and has a mild, nutty flavor. A number of other caviar varieties exist with differing flavors, textures, and colors.
In addition to the type of fish, caviar is graded based on the size, texture, and flavor of the eggs. There are two main grades of caviar:
- Grade 1: Firm, large eggs that are intact (more expensive).
- Grade 2: Less delicate and less perfectly formed eggs (less expensive).
Beluga caviar is also rated by color. 000 is light or silver-gray, 00 is medium gray, and 0 is gray. The lighter color is prized more but doesn't greatly affect the flavor. The rarest shade of caviar is golden caviar. It's a pale off-yellow color that's believed to be found in only one in 1,000 osetra sturgeon.
Caviar can be unpasteurized or pasteurized. A lack of pasteurization increases the risk of foodborne illness and decreases the shelf life, but fresh, completely raw caviar is prized for its superior flavor and texture.
How to Use Caviar
For purists, it's best to eat caviar alone or with minimal accompaniments. The raw dish is classically served on a bed of ice with a caviar spoon, traditionally made of pearl or bone. Silver or steel utensils can impart a metallic flavor to caviar and are therefore avoided. Caviar can be consumed right off a spoon or served with crackers, toast points, or blini (small crepes or pancakes).
Caviar can also be added as a finishing touch to appetizers and pasta but is not usually cooked. Instead, it is added as a garnish to preserve its flavor.
What Does It Taste Like?
The experience of eating caviar is equal parts flavor and texture. Caviar is typically salty, but how salty will depend on the variety. The small eggs burst in the mouth, releasing a buttery, sometimes nutty, and slightly sweet taste. Some caviar is more briny or fishy in flavor than others.
While caviar needs no further preparation, it's delicious served with classic accompaniments like blini and toast points.
Where to Buy Caviar
Caviar can be bought in tightly sealed metal tins at gourmet markets or online vendors. It's typically priced per tin, and the price can vary depending on the type and origin of the caviar. Since unpasteurized caviar must remain refrigerated, ensure that any online orders will arrive quickly packed with ice packs.
What type of caviar you select will depend on your preferences, plans, and budget. Don't be afraid to ask a store associate for advice when selecting high-priced items like caviar.
Store unpasteurized caviar in the coldest part of the refrigerator until you are ready to eat it. Unopened, a tin can stay in the refrigerator for about two weeks. An opened jar or tin should be stored, tightly covered, in the fridge for two to three days. Pasteurized caviar can sit on the shelf for several months before use, with any leftovers stored in the fridge for two to three days.