Learn About Caviar:

Comprehensive Guide to Buying and Eating Caviar

The Origins of Caviar

To learn about caviar we should go back to its origin. Caviar, a food delicacy and tradition originating in seafaring societies, is most generally non-fertilized sturgeon roe. This roe is processed using various salts so to preserve its delicate spherical shape and oceanic flavor. Once preserved in this way caviar can last for months and even years. As with red wine, caviar exudes a sought after profile after it has been processed and left to rest for weeks or months undisturbed. Caviar is placed in tins and secured with a wide rubber band to permit for swelling during the curing process. The first caviar noted in history was in 2400 B.C. by the Persians and Azeri of the Caspian Sea region. In Persian egg is translated as khya and piece of power means chav-jar. From this the word caviar was formed. These globular jewels were used for medicinal properties and presented to royalty in the form of annual tax payments by fisherman.

Russian Caviar

Russian caviar guide

Caviar tins from a Russian recipe book.

While caviar originated in the Persian culture, Russians played an important roll in the evolution of caviar. Since the 9th century Russians have processed caviar from an abundance of sturgeon in the region. As industrialization and globalization transformed Europe, caviar traversed cultural boundaries and became a symbol of wealth and prestige, which is remains today. However, this globalization has also granted entry to North America into the world of caviar production. Another reason for allowed expansion is due to the over-fishing of the native sturgeon species originally sourced for caviar in the Caspian Sea and in Russia. In order to keep up with the demand of the caviar trade, while minimizing the environmental impact of caviar production, the development of sustainable farming and harvesting of sturgeon is currently advancing worldwide.

Naming System for Caviar

In the past caviar was a term only designated for wild sturgeon roe from the Black and Caspian Seas. Originally the only sturgeon applicable for sourcing caviar, also referred to as true sturgeons, was beluga, sevruga and osetra, the latter for Persian and Russian sturgeon. Today caviar can also refer to salmon, lumpfish, steelhead, whitefish, trout and other types of sturgeon. However, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization requires that these types of caviar include the fish name of the source, i.e. trout caviar or salmon caviar.

Grading Caviar

To note, there is not an official grading system for determining the values of different types of caviar. Therefore, you should understand what to look for when purchasing or sampling caviar across an international marketplace. Every tin of caviar highlights a distinct taste, finish, texture and appearance, all of which are noted on the labeling.

When choosing a certain grade of caviar, the primary areas to look at are the size and color of the caviar. For caviar with larger pearls, it will be more expensive. In terms of color, beluga, kaluga and Russian sturgeon caviar are the only types that are graded according to color. The more golden in color, the more costly the caviar. For example, caviar sourced from albino sturgeon is light gold making it the most expensive and rarest caviar on the market today.

Rarity of Caviar

To understand the world of caviar, you should learn about caviar rarity and sustainability. Caviar from certain species of sturgeon including beluga, kaluga, Russian osetra, Persian sturgeon, Siberian sturgeon and sevruga are threatened to become endangered. As a result, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) have restricted the trade of species that are endangered. This includes all species of sturgeon, which is the most sought after type of caviar. Therefore finding the finest forms of caviar from beluga, Russian osetra and the like is not only difficult but costly. Fortunately sustainable farming practices for harvesting roe from sturgeon are being utilized in order to reduce the negative impact of producing caviar.

How to Buy Caviar

When buying caviar the first step is to look for sustainable and trustful resources, such as PalicanCaviar.com. Second step is to examine the jar and note if any liquid or oil has gathered at the bottom. It should have neither. The high quality beads should be consistent in color, shape and size. Usually, sevruga and sterlet caviars have softer structure, while kaluga, beluga and Russian osetra have firm and distinct eggs. High quality caviar should have a fresh ocean scent and mildly sweet aroma. Fresh caviar should never have a bold fishy smell! The shiny coating of the pearls represents the freshness as well as the proper storage. Sturgeon caviar should never be frozen, as it damages the wholesomeness of the eggs. However, salmon roe could be frozen.

Beluga (Huso huso)

Beluga caviar is characterized by the Caspian Sea from where this rare caviar is sourced. Featuring a light to dark gray hue tinted with a shimmer of gold tint, beluga caviar is the largest of the Caspian pearls. Its flavor profile includes a firm and silky texture along with a buttery yet nutty note.

Kaluga (Huso dauricus)

Pearls of a medium to large size in diameter, kaluga caviar is rich and nutty in taste. As for the texture, expect to find firm pearls colored by gray tones with gold and amber highlights. Look for the olive green undertones adding depth to this sweet, creamy caviar with hints of sea salt.

Russian Osetra (Acipenser Gueldenstaedtii)

Notice the medium to large sized beads of Russian osetra caviar, another one of the most sought after types of caviar. Look for a black coloring with chestnut highlights for these firm beads. In terms of flavor, Russian osetra is rich and nutty with a buttery, creamy finish with a splash of sea salt.

Sterlet (Acipenser Ruthenus)

A rare caviar for the American buyer, sterlet is often used as a replacement for sevruga caviar. Take note that the size of sterlet is very small, and never larger than 1 mm in diameter. In reference to its color, sterlet features a light to dark gray tone with silver strands of color interspersed. The texture is delicate, smooth and velvety with a clean, ascertive finish.

Sevruga (Acipenser Stellatus)

Highly regarded among caviar enthusiasts, sevruga is equally rare due to the limited availability of sevruga. Look for a medium to small size pearl that ranges from 1.2 to 2 mm in diameter. Delicate in composition, yet strong in quality, sevruga features a color of light gray with pearl hues to dark charcoal. As for flavor, prepare yourself for an oceanic tone with crisp and nutty hues, finished by a buttery flavor.

Siberian Sturgeon (Acipenser Baerii)

A stronger palate is suited for Siberian sturgeon, and so it is typically reserved for those who are caviar connoisseurs. In terms of size Siberian sturgeon look for medium sized pearls with a deep brown to charcoal black coloring. Highlighted by an earthy finish, this rich and nutty caviar has notes of shiitake mushrooms, finishing with a sea breeze and buttery tone.

White Sturgeon (Acipencer Transmontanus) – American Caviar

Ideal for a substitute for Siberian sturgeon or Russian osetra, it is sourced from fresh water supplies in North America. White sturgeon is also known as Pacific sturgeon. Look for a large and gentle bead that ranges from a pale gold hue with olive green highlights to dark bold brown with chestnut tones. White sturgeon caviar has a nutty, mild and buttery with a clean finish of mineral notes.

Hackleback (Scaphirhynchus Platorynchus) – American caviar

Another North American source, the shovelnose sturgeon aka hackleback has a limited availability, albeit a relatively moderate price. When procuring hackleback caviar seek out a small to medium sized bead featuring a deep charcoal color with seaweed hues. These velvety beads are nutty with a sweet oceanic tone, finishes buttery.

Paddlefish (Polyodon Spathula) – American caviar

A strong flavor, paddlefish is popular and well priced but not typically sampled among beginners. An intriguing caviar, paddlefish pearls are steely gray with a medium to large size diameter. The firm texture of this caviar is accompanied by complex ocean notes with an earthy finish.

Salmon Roe

While not a traditional caviar, salmon roe is widely popular among caviar enthusiasts. Salmon roe is striking with a vivid orange hue complemented by red flashes. Bright, bursting beads are giant in size, and they feature a clean, fresh flavor with a long, creamy finish.

The Nutrition of Caviar

Caviar has long been known for its health-giving and aphrodisiac qualities. It is said that consuming caviar may improve brain function and help with nerve cell repair. Historically, caviar was prescribed to alleviate depression, and as a hangover cure for its high acetylcholine content.  Caviar is rich in omega-3 fatty acid that is very good for your skin. One serving of caviar has an adult’s daily requirement of Vitamin B12. Other nutrients are vitamins A, E, B6, Iron, Magnesium and Selenium.

How to Serve Caviar

A satisfactory experience with caviar begins with understanding how to enjoy caviar. According to purists the only way to savor the flavors of caviar is by way of a spoon, without any caviar accompaniments. However, you can expand your caviar palate by exploring a variety of serving suggestions. Foods, such as egg, onion and creme fraiche, as well as alcohol beverages of vodka and champagne, add a sparkle to caviar by revealing undertones and nuances.

For one person who is going to indulge in caviar, 1 ounce, or 30 grams, is the equivalent of a full size serving of caviar. For a tasting service that includes two to four people, the 1 ounce (30 grams) service will suffice. However, you can safely serve up to 50 grams of caviar for a group of four without risk of wasting this precious gift of the sea.

When you serve caviar you want it to remain cold throughout the tasting. The container or tin holding the caviar should be served in a bowl of ice in order to maintain its chill. Never cook caviar unless you are using pressed caviar or a caviar substitute for a fine dining, gourmand experience. Open the container of caviar just before serving in order to maintain its freshness. Caviar that smells fishy or musty should be discarded, as should caviar that has meat or bloody streaks, as this is a sign the caviar is illegally sourced. However, if your caviar contains a lot of burst beads or pearls and is sitting in oil, that is not a quality control issue and you can enjoy your caviar.

Caviar Accompaniments

Serving CaviarAccompaniments to caviar are used to accentuate the subtle flavors and complex notes that underline caviar. In terms of edibles, the classic caviar accompaniments are blinis, which are Russian pancakes, and smetana aka sour cream. However, a combo of chopped raw onion and hard boiled egg is also popular for serving caviar. Some fine dining establishments serve caviar over the top of white chocolate coated wafer cookies for a sweet and salty finish to a meal.

Avoid using caviar as a garnish for dishes if it is a fine caviar meant for tasting. Furthermore, if you have caviar that is delicate in flavor and expensive, forgo the use of accompaniments for caviar altogether so you can appreciate the authentic caviar flavor. In terms of beverages with caviar, Russian vodka is a common caviar accompaniment. However, most fruity alcoholic beverages will suffice including bubbly champagne and fruity white wines including the German Riesling.

Tasting Caviar

Before you sample caviar, make sure to have the proper tools. You should never use a metal spoon as this imparts a metallic taste. Choose a ceramic, glass, horn, gold, wood, mother-of-pearl or plastic spoon. Alternatively, take the route of caviar enthusiasts and serve caviar from the back of your hand for a truly sensational caviar experience.