Admit it. If you haven’t tasted quality caviar served on a buckwheat blini with a dallop of crème fraiche, aren’t you curious to know what the fuss is about?
Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to indulge in a little decadence with your special someone, and nothing says romance like candlelight, soft music, long-stemmed roses, champagne…and caviar.
Today, caviar symbolizes the epitome of luxury and class, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, 150 years ago caviar was so cheap in the United States that it was served for free in bars—like pretzels or popcorn—just to encourage patrons to drink more! Overfishing, pollution, and loss of habitat caused supply to crash and prices to skyrocket, but you can still enjoy this delicious delicacy for a reasonable price. You just have to know what you’re looking for.
Read on to learn how to choose, buy, serve, and enjoy quality caviar. Once we’ve mother-of-pearl-spoon-fed you the basics, you’ll be ready to wow your guests or treat your sweety to an exquisite culinary treat.
Why try caviar?
Caviar still has a bit of an elitist image, but it's no longer just for the uber-wealthy. In fact, it can be as affordable as a bottle of good wine or a great dessert...not to mention that it's far healthier.
Among its many nutritional virtues, caviar is rich in calcium, iron, selenium, and antioxidants. It’s also a great source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids, which means that it’s good for your heart, bones, and immune system. It's even used as a natural anti-depressant.
But the real reason to treat yourself and your loved ones to this exquisite delicacy is, of course, flavor.
What caviar is (and isn’t).
If you’re new to buying caviar, you may find the terminology a little confusing.
Technically, caviar is the salted, unfertilized eggs of sturgeon fish. The eggs of other kinds of fish like salmon or trout can also be tasty, but they aren’t true caviar; we refer to the eggs of those fish as “roe.”
In a moment, we’ll discuss the different kinds of caviar and roe, compare their tastes, and show you what you can expect to pay for each. But for now, just keep in mind that all true caviar comes from sturgeon. In the U.S., we tend to be pretty lax about the way we use the terminology, so you might see products that advertise “salmon caviar” or “lumpfish caviar.” Just understand that those products are actually roe.
What kind of caviar should I buy, and how much should I expect to pay for it?
It’s true that the price of caviar can be astronomically high. (Gastronomically? Gasp-tronomically?) But, as with sparkling wine, the more expensive caviars don’t always offer the highest quality or value.
The following list should give you an idea of the range of caviar available and their prices. Let’s start with the most expensive.
Beluga:Beluga is widely considered the most prized type of caviar in the world, but due to terribly overfishing, beluga sturgeon are critically endangered. The U.S. banned the importation of beluga caviar in 2005. While you can buy beluga today, not many vendors offer it, and you may have to pay $800 per ounce or more for high-quality product.
Beluga hybrids:This type of caviar comes from fish that are a cross between beluga and another kind of sturgeon. It’s easier to find than beluga, has a similar buttery, nutty taste, and costs a lot less, ranging from about $120-145 per ounce.
Ossetra:Perhaps the most popular caviar in the world, ossetra (a/k/a osetra or asetra) has medium-sized gold or brown eggs with a unique taste of butter, caramel, and brine. The price for ossetra varies widely from $50-250 per ounce.
Sevruga:The European sevruga has small gray eggs with a full-bodied taste that is described as briny, nutty, and slightly tangy. It is not everyone’s favorite, but it is very popular with caviar connoisseurs. Price ranges from $50-150 per ounce.
American white sturgeon:Arguably the best value, American white surgeon caviar starts with a typical briny taste but then has a buttery aftertaste almost like parmesan cheese. $85-110.
Siberian: Also known as baika, Siberian caviar is saltier and has larger eggs than most other kinds. It typically costs $80-105.
Kaluga:Closely related to beluga, the kaluga sturgeon is found in Asia and is the largest freshwater fish on earth. It is sometimes called “river beluga” because its caviar resembles beluga’s in taste, but it has been much better managed and protected, so they are not as endangered. Kaluga has large, firm eggs that are light brown, grey, gold, or green and have a creamy, nutty taste that is more subtle than some types. Expect to pay $55-85 for a 1-ounce tin.
Sterlet:Similar to sevruga in taste, sterlet has even smaller eggs that are grey or silver. Expect to pay $50-100 per ounce.
Hackleback:Also known as shovelback sturgeon, hackleback is a wild sturgeon harvested from the rivers of the American South. Hackleback caviar is dark black and tastes nutty and sweet. At such a low price of $35-50 per ounce, it can be a great value as long as you choose a high-quality product.
What alternatives should I consider?
Golden Whitefish:Think of golden whitefish as the marijuana of the caviar world. Inexpensive and pleasant tasting, it is a gateway drug! At $8-15 per ounce, it’s the perfect “caviar” to experiment with.
Salmon:Salmon roe, sometimes known as “red caviar,” is one of the most popular and delicious substitutes. For as low as $10 per ounce, it’s no wonder that salmon roe is used in so many cuisines and dishes.
Rainbow trout:We love serving rainbow trout roe at home. It’s subtly sweet and a little briny, and it has that delightful pop in your mouth that you want. If you’re not a big seafood lover, try smoked salmon roe! As with most seafoods, smoke mellows out the fishy flavors and gives it a broader appeal. At just $10-30 per ounce, you can afford to add trout roe as a special treat to charcuterie boards, canapés, sushi, and other seafood dishes, or just enjoy it by the spoonful.
Paddlefish:American paddlefish is another excellent “introductory” caviar substitute. Similar in flavor to sevruga, paddlefish roe is far less expensive at $16-28 per ounce.
Herruga:The roe of Spanish herring, herruga has a mild smokey and nutty flavor. Prices vary widely, from $6 per ounce all the way up to $200, so make sure you buy from a reputable dealer.
Tobiko:Made from flying fish roe, tobiko is often dyed green with wasabi, black with squid ink, or red with beet juice. Personally, we don’t think it tastes great on its own, but its pleasant texture makes a great garnish for sushi. Expect to pay around $15 an ounce for good quality tobiko.
Masago:Masago “caviar” is made from the roe of tiny capelin fish. It’s mildly sweet and smokey, and it will only run you about $7-15 per ounce. Like tobiko, we wouldn’t recommend eating it on its own, but it is often used in Japan as a sushi topping.
How can I choose good caviar?
There’s a saying that a good caviar should have at least 15 different flavors to it. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, the point is that a bite of quality caviar should give you a multi-level experience. It should be enjoyable in every aspect, from its appearance and smell to the feel on your tongue, the pop against the roof of your mouth, the initial burst of flavors, and the lingering aftertaste.
- Appearance: Caviar should have a shine and sparkle, but not an oily sheen. Each egg should be full and distinct, not a mushy mess.
- Texture: Caviar should be firm, but not tough. When pressed, it should make a pleasant pop.
- Smell: Caviar should have a mild briny smell, but if they smell fishy, you’ve got a problem!
- Flavor: Different types of caviar have different forward flavors and lingering aftertaste, from nutty to buttery to fruity to sweet. However, caviar should never taste metallic or overly fishy.
A key to choosing good caviar is to look for quality but not for bargains. Don’t get fooled by blow-out sales or surprisingly low prices. Your best bet is to look for a caviar (or caviar substitute) in your price range and work through a reputable dealer.
Where should I buy caviar?
Shopping for caviar online is a dubious business unless you stick with companies that are established and dependable. We have never been disappointed with Marky’s or Om. Russ & Daughters and Petrossian also have fine reputations.
If you’re looking for caviar you can buy in bulk, Costco is a good option. They offer several varieties of ossetra, Siberian, and white sturgeon.
Here in Utah, we have a few local vendors to choose from. Caputo’s in Salt Lake City is one of our favorite purveyors, not only of caviar but of cheese, chocolate, and all sorts of loveliness! If you’ve shopped there before, you know that Caputo’s employees are amazingly helpful and more than willing to share their knowledge. Maybe if enough of us make a specific request, they’ll offer a hands-on class on caviar.
Finally, Pirate O’s carries reasonably priced caviar substitutes: salmon roe for $24.99/2 ounces and lumpfish roe for $12.99/2 ounces.
How much caviar do I need to buy?
A good rule of thumb for buying and serving caviar is “Don’t overdo it. A little goes a long way.”
The among of caviar you should buy depends on how you’re serving it, how many guests you have, how hungry they are, and how many true caviar-lovers you’ve invited. But here are the basic guidelines to follow:
- As a garnish just to give a touch of class, a few grains per serving will do, so a 1-ounce tin of caviar can serve your whole party of 20+ people.
- On most hors d’oeuvres or appetizers, use ⅛ to ¼ of a teaspoon per serving. This will yield roughly 20-40 servings per ounce of caviar.
- If caviar is the main flavor you want guests to taste on an appetizer, use about ½ teaspoon per serving. This will give you about 10 servings per 1-ounce tin.
- If eating caviar straight out of the tin, a 1-ounce serving will feed 1 to 2 people.
How should I store caviar?
Since caviar is partially cured with salt and vacuum sealed, it should last 4-6 weeks if unopened. Store caviar in the coldest part of your fridge, usually in the back. Once you open it, you should eat it as soon as you can, within no more than 2-4 days.
You can freeze caviar, but we don’t recommend it. The flavor will be mostly unaffected by freezing, but the texture will change. Once frozen, caviar tends to become more sticky, clumpy, and mushy. It will also lose that slight pop in the mouth.
How should I serve caviar?
Fish eggs are fragile, so always handle caviar and other kinds of roe gently. Metal spoons, particularly silver, can give caviar a nasty metallic taste and alter its color. That’s why they make special mother-of-pearls spoons for caviar. Plastic, wood, ceramic, or tortoise shell works too.)
If you’re working with salmon, whitefish, or lumpfish roe, it’s a good idea to rinse it gently with cold water and let it dry on a paper towel before serving. Otherwise, the color might run.
To keep your caviar at its freshest, take it out of the fridge about 10 minutes before you serve it. If you don’t use it all, immediately seal the remainder and place it back in the fridge.
To take a sample taste, place a dollop on the back of your thumb, on the flat part between your thumb and first finger. Then slurp it off. There’s no real reason to eat it like that except tradition.
If you can, keep the tins on ice.
There are lots of delicious ways to serve caviar as an hors d’oeuvres or appetizer. Blinis (small Russian pancakes) are a traditional favorite vehicle, and we particularly love to make them with buckwheat.
Different kinds of crackers or toast points (crustless triangles of toast) also work well, but you’ll be surprised how great caviar tastes on a simple, unsalted potato chip. (Caviar is salty enough on its own, so salted potato chips can be too much.) Honestly, potatoes in practically any form are a great match for caviar, so try it on baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, French fries, or even tater tots. Trust us on this! Eggs, sushi, and all kinds of sea food also complement caviar beautifully.
Red onions, chives, and crème fraiche or sour cream are all great additions. Just don’t overdo them and overpower the amazing flavors of the caviar.
What drink should I serve with caviar?
Ice cold vodka or champagne are the traditional beverages to complement caviar. Plain water or sparkling water can also work to cleanse your palate between tastes. You don’t want anything overpowering like a heavy red or white wine. That said, a milder white wine can work. Finding the perfect pairing is a matter of personal taste and experimentation, but what experimenting could be more fun to do?
From all of us at Culinary Crafts, may your Valentine’s Day be the most romantic and delicious ever!