More fish eggs than you know what to do with – caviar

consider the options

I’ll be the first to admit that growing up the thought of caviar made me go “Euew”  but then I learned better, or just got a bit smarter.  I cannot even tell you when it started, it snuck up on me and thank goodness!  Ever since then I’ve been having fun experimenting, but I am a long way from being an expert.  However, since I find myself in the “Little Russia” section of San Francisco, and practically every corner market has some sort of caviar product, I feel compelled to sample them all.

What is Caviar?

Caviar is the processed, salted roe (eggs) of  the sturgeon roe.  The roe can be “fresh” (non-pasteurized) or pasteurized, the latter having much less culinary and economic value, but a longer shelf life.  Caviar labeled with the word “malossol” indicates that the roe is preserved with a minimum amount of salt, malossol being the Russian for “little salt.”  Caviar is extremely perishable and must be refrigerated immediately until consumption.  Pasteurized caviar is roe that has been partially cooked, making it less perishable, but the eggs have a slightly different texture, as a result its not as expensive.  Pressed caviar is composed of damaged or fragile eggs and can be a combination of several different roes. It is treated, salted, and pressed into its packaging.

the writings on the wall

What’s In a Name?

Depending on the national laws of the country, the name caviar may also describe the roe of other fish such as salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, whitefish, and any number other species of sturgeon.  The term is also used to describe dishes that are perceived to resemble caviar, such as “eggplant caviar” (made from eggplant (aubergine), Yorkshire caviar from the UK made with mushy peas,  and “Texas caviar” (black-eyed peas).

However, if you are in the United States, and the roe is from any fish other than the Acipenseriformes species (including Acipenseridae, or sturgeon stricto sensu, and Polyodontidae or paddlefish) it is not caviar, but “substitutes of caviar” according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.   This stance is also adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the United States Customs Service, and the Republic of France.  Another labeling method is to call it caviar of “insert name of fish” to distinguish it from the true sturgeon caviar.  So as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is caviar.

Type Cast

Beluga – This roe is the rarest and most expensive, from the beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) living in the Caspian Sea.  This roe is prized for its soft (rich and silky) and relatively large (pea sized) eggs which range in color from pale silver gray to black.  Generally, the lighter the color, the more expensive the roe. The grades are: 0 (darkest color), 00 (medium toned), and 000 (lightest color), with the 000 grade as the most expensive and sometimes referred to as “royal caviar”.  These large fish (up to 30 feet in length and over a ton) are remarkably long-lived (up to 100 years), but unfortunately, their longevity and late maturing make them especially susceptible to the effects of pollution.

Sterlet – This caviar with served to Russian czars, Iranian shahs and Austrian emperors.

Osstra – This highly prized medium sized caviar runs the gamut from brown to gray, with a taste often described as nutty and strong.  This roe is the most common of the wild caviar and comes mostly from the Black and Azov Seas.

Sevuga – Considered low on the quality pole, this gray roe is serviceable, with a less distinctive flavor.  Its probably no coincidence that its also the most common and its lower price point reflects this fact.


Wild caviar production survives only in Azerbaijan and Iran as Russia maintains a self-imposed ban on caviar trade from wild sturgeon.  Farmed sturgeon farms are now producing good caviar to fill the gap, as has the rise in popularity of those “substitutes of caviar” alternatives.  The decline in sturgeon is the result of two powerful colliding forces: overfishing and the rise in pollution in the Caspian Sea.

In the early 1900s, Canada and the United States were the major caviar suppliers to Europe; roe was harvested from the lake sturgeon in the American midwest, and from the Shortnose sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon spawned in the rivers of the Eastern United States. Today the Shortnose sturgeon is listed as an endangered species.

Other Questions that Must Be Asked

How many fish eggs does a fish produce?

A lot, as many as 20,000 for a single salmon, and several million for a sturgeon, carp or shad.

options galore

What’s the difference between bottarga and caviar?

Bottarga is the heavily salted fish eggs that have been pressed and dried.  The salt here not so much to flavor but to act as a preservative.  Its a concentration of flavor like no other, and is served thinly sliced as an antipasto or on a pasta. Additionally, its not the roe of sturgeon but most likely grey mullet or tuna.  On the other hand, caviar are lightly salted, highly perishable fish eggs, that due to their delicate nature are usually served as the focal point of flavor.

When did folks start eating caviar?

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, caviar was first consumed about 1200 AD as a more palatable alternative to sturgeon ovaries.  He further goes on to say that only 150 years ago sturgeon was so plentiful that a cookbook writer suggested using it to clarify bouillons and to decorate sauerkraut “so that it appeared to be strewn with poppy seeds.”  Less than 50 years after that remark, around 1900 hundred, sturgeon was driven to near extinction from overfishing, dams, and hydroelectric plants, and addition challenges such as pollution have not helped.

What’s the deal with the borax?

Some countries (not the US) allow borax to replace some of the salt giving the caviar a sweeter taste and improving its shelf life.

What about that roe on my sushi?

Chances are its flying fish eggs, those small, yellow, though often dyed orange or black and crunchy.  In Japan its called tobiko.

Just One Bite

High quality caviar is consumed in a way that allows the eater to focus on the experience the full flavor and texture of the roe.  In some respects it can seem almost ceramonial with the mother-of pearl and gold utensils – just make sure its not stainless steel or silver as that will taint the flavor – plastic is even preferable.

Beyond Toast Points

heaven in a tube

In Scandinavia and Finland, a significantly cheaper version of caviar, made from mashed, smoked cod roe (smörgåskaviar or sandwich caviar), is sold in tubes as a sandwich filling. When sold outside Scandinavia, the product is referred to as creamed smoked roe or in French as Caviar de Lysekil, named after the Swedish coastal town of Lysekil, where this spread is thought to have originated.  A favorite sandwich is the roe spread with hardboiled eggs.  I found this tube at the World Market in Minneapolis.

Regardless of your preference, this tasty treat of the sea has made many a celebration seem more festive, and hopefully will continue to do so.

More Information?

California caviar – as good as Caspian?

Caviar Dreams – Saveur

Update me when site is updated

21 comments for “More fish eggs than you know what to do with – caviar

  1. May 9, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    Excellent info on caviar! I grew up with it so definitely love it. At my parents’ house there isn’t a party without it 🙂
    5 Star Foodie recently posted..Magnum Ice Cream Bars &amp Cinnamon Coffee Cake for Mothers Day

  2. May 11, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    Hmmmm. My first experience with caviar was in my mid-20s, when I went to work at a fancy Boston restaurant. A tiny scoop of Beluga topped a roasted potato – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
    Lynn recently posted..A fabulous strawberry and ricotta tart

  3. May 11, 2011 at 7:59 PM

    My first pay check, I’m treating myself to beluga and champagne for dinner. 🙂

    Mentaiko is still my favorite though, with creamy pasta…

  4. May 13, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    I knew little about caviar, thanks for this informative post! Unfortunately I’ve never tried it as it is rare and so pricy here.

  5. May 13, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    I’m still in “euew” stage and will probably always be. However, I totally enjoyed this post. I had no idea there were so many varieties and stages.

    Thanks for sharing…
    Louise recently posted..Sleep- Creep- Leap and a Bit of Sweet

  6. May 14, 2011 at 6:59 AM

    Great info on caviar! I’ve only had caviar a few times in my life, and I’ve always been intimidated to buy it. Well, plus it’s expensive… I’ll bookmark this post for when I finally buy some.
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Zucchini Noodles with Tomato-Basil Sauce

  7. May 15, 2011 at 9:02 AM

    Wow–this brings back an old memory. In my 20s I had a work party and I wanted to bring something different, so I picked up some caviar and brought it to the working class tavern to have with our beer. Although I enjoyed it (and definately got attention from the choice), I haven’t had it since. I clearly need to go out and indulge again!
    I Wilkerson recently posted..If Life Gives You Cabbage… Make Coleslaw

  8. May 15, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    Great information on caviar. I love it but haven’t had it in ages. I spent part of a summer in Hungary once and really indulged.
    tammy recently posted..Salt of the Earth

  9. OysterCulture
    May 15, 2011 at 2:43 PM

    5 Star – Those must have been some parties. Were they the red or black varieties?

    Lynn – That sounds like the perfect combination.

    Sophia – Champagne?? Wow, you know how to celebrate and I don’t blame you =)

    Zerrin – Its funny, but it is very expensive in Western style markets and while still pricey not nearly as dear in the Eastern European markets that surround me. If you have any like that near you, that might be a good place to start.

    Louise – I knew there were many varieties but did not know the distinction so it was fun putting it together.

    Andrea – I was too, but am less so now, maybe because I am surrounded by it in forms that are far from treating it as some elevated experience.

    I Wilkerson – You must have been the start of the party. What a treat that would have been.

    Tammy – I bet having it in Hungary would have been something else. I’d be curious to know how they served it.

  10. May 15, 2011 at 6:03 PM

    What a wonderful information on caviar!I didn’t know much about it, but I love it.

  11. May 16, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    Great post, so much information about caviar…I love caviar but tend to not have very often because of the salt content. Thank you so much for sharing such interesting facts. Have a great week 🙂

  12. May 17, 2011 at 6:18 AM

    My parents adored caviar and my mother would make appetizers with it – sometimes the red, sometimes the black and sometimes both. I had no idea that caviar consumption went back so far – but it certainly is a heavenly treat and a little bit goes a long way.
    Claudia recently posted..Sharing Salads with Sadie

  13. May 17, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    I know very little about caviar, but I have read some info on the sturgeon and efforts to make caviar more sustainable. Interesting stuff. The only roe I’ve had before is the salmon on my sushi. 🙂 If presented with the opportunity to indulge in caviar there is no way I’d pass it up. It always sounds amazing.
    Lori recently posted..Strawberry Pecan Pancakes

  14. May 19, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    awesome post on caviar detailed and informative your a fab writer
    rebecca recently posted..Lavender Candy Floss

  15. May 19, 2011 at 8:14 PM

    I’d love it if we could turn back time to when caviar was plentiful and could be dabbed on everything with creme fraiche. There used to be a great caviar shop at the Ferry Building that has since closed, and I remember how wonderful their selection was. One of these days when I have enough money, I’ll try out the range of caviar types. I’m dying to try beluga just to see what it is like.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..A Very Special Mothers Day – The First of Many

  16. OysterCulture
    May 20, 2011 at 8:23 PM

    Erica – Me too, that’s why I wrote the post.

    Juliana – You have more discipline than me, I’d not have held back.

    Rebecca – Thanks!

    Christine – I’d love to do a side by side tasting – maybe when you’re back in foodie action when can give it a go.

  17. May 21, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    I know nothing about caviar….thanks for writing this informative entry about it.
    Angie@Angiesrecipes recently posted..Chocolate Cream Cheese Peanut Butter Bars

  18. June 3, 2011 at 6:50 AM

    This is one of the best, most informative articles on the topic I have read in a long time! Kudos to you for taking the time to research and thanks for sharing with us! I live in Russia, so I feel that your piece has armed me to do major battle with the caviar guys at the vegetable market next time I visit. I love your blog…i love oysters!!! I’m coming back for more!
    Jennifer Eremeeva recently posted..The F Words- More from the Expat Lexicon

  19. OysterCulture
    June 4, 2011 at 7:21 AM

    Angie – My pleasure, had fun putting it together

    Jennifer – Thanks, that’s high praise. Look forward to a continued dialog. I took a peak at your post and knew I needed to explore too. Love learned from an ex-pat perspective.

  20. June 6, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    Beluga is pricey and rare, and also almost overfished into extinction. Many environmentalists wish the giant fish would be put on the endangered species list to give the stocks time to recover. But so far, the powers that be have resisted doing that. Beluga eggs are incredible tasting, but I think we can forgo eating them for a few years to give the fish a fighting chance.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..Wines to Take Along Anywhere

  21. June 6, 2011 at 7:00 PM

    My favorite subject, next to champagne anyway 🙂 Excellent article!

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