Culinary Arts

What Is Caviar? Learn All About Caviar, Where It Comes From, and How to Serve It

Written by MasterClass

Aug 5, 2019 • 6 min read

If there’s one food that’s associated with pure luxury, it’s caviar. This delicacy of sturgeon fish eggs is rare and expensive and considered a coveted item in the culinary world. Caviar comes from several species of sturgeon, but beluga caviar is the largest, rarest, and the most expensive caviar. At close to $3,500 per pound, it deserves its nickname, “black gold.”

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What Is Caviar?

Caviar is unfertilized fish eggs, also known as fish roe. It is a salty delicacy, served cold. True caviar comes from wild sturgeon, which belong to the Acipenseridae family. While the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea produced much of the world’s caviar for a long time, farm-produced caviar has now become popular as wild sturgeon populations have been depleted from overfishing.

How Is Caviar Harvested?

The highest quality caviar comes from eggs harvested as the females prepare to spawn. In the wild, sturgeon are caught as they move from saltwater to fresh tributaries to lay their eggs. In fish farms, sturgeon will be monitored through ultrasound to determine when their eggs are ready for harvesting. Depending on the size of the fish, a sturgeon can release several million eggs at once.

What Are the Characteristics of Caviar?

Every type of caviar has its own unique qualities, from coloring to flavor. For example, Beluga caviar is smooth and buttery with a nutty flavor that’s close to hazelnut. Glistening caviar eggs range in color from pure black to a greenish-grey. True caviar has a famous “Caspian pop”—the egg bursts in the mouth.

Caviar is divided into two grades depending on qualities such as size, color, firmness, taste, and aroma.

  • Grade 1 is the firmest, richest eggs
  • Grade 2 is slightly lower in quality

Why Is Caviar Considered a Delicacy?

Caviar is a natural delicacy. It is a nutritious food, packed with protein, amino acids, iron, and vitamin B12. Every step in getting caviar to the consumer is part of a delicate, time and labor-intensive process. The demand for real, sturgeon caviar is always greater than the supply.

  • Rarity. Female sturgeon only begin producing eggs after seven to 20 years, depending on the species. A beluga can take up to 20 years to reach maturity. A female fish only spawns once every several years. Caspian caviar is the most sought after, but trade in wild-produced caviar is heavily regulated by Cites—Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—in order to protect the critically endangered species of sturgeon, making it extremely difficult to come by.
  • Short shelf life. When caviar is lightly salted it allows the naturally nutty flavors to shine through. This type of caviar, known as “malossol” is the best quality caviar but it is good for only a few weeks.
  • Manual harvesting. Every package of caviar is the result of a detailed, manual harvesting process. Eggs are carefully extracted from the fish, washed, and prepared by hand to ensure the eggs retain their quality. The entire collection of up to two million eggs is analyzed and any bad eggs are discarded.

5 Different Types of Caviar

People have been consuming sturgeon caviar for hundreds of years. Beginning in the 1800s, fish eggs were harvested and consumed from other fish species but none have achieved the status of true caviar. Of the 27 sturgeon species, almost all can be harvested for their eggs but beluga, sevruga, and osetra have long dominated the caviar world.

  1. Beluga caviar. Beluga sturgeon, a large, prehistoric fish that can reach 15-feet-long and weigh nearly 3,000 pounds, produces the most sought after caviar. It is native to the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The caviar is rich, with no fishy taste at all and ranges in color from pearl grey to extremely dark, garnering it the moniker of black caviar.
  2. Kaluga caviar. The Kaluga is a large, freshwater sturgeon whose caviar is said to closely match the taste of Beluga caviar. Kaluga eggs are smooth and have a lightly-salted buttery flavor.
  3. Osetra caviar. Slightly smaller than beluga caviar, osetra sturgeon eggs are brown to golden in color. The lighter the eggs, the older the fish, and the more expensive the osetra caviar. It has a naturally salty sea-like taste.
  4. Sevruga caviar. This caviar is from the eggs of three types of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea: sevruga, sterlet, and Siberian sturgeon. The eggs are small and grey, and one of the most in-demand types of caviar with a distinct, buttery flavor.
  5. American caviar. In the nineteenth century, the United States was a leading producer of caviar. It has had a resurgence and American caviar has once again become popular. It is derived from fish such as lake sturgeon, wild Atlantic sturgeon, and white sturgeon.

Where Does the Best Caviar Come From?

The best quality caviar comes from the countries around the Caspian Sea, home to the Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga sturgeon. For centuries, Russia and Iran have dominated the caviar market, producing the highest quality, and most in-demand, caviar in the world. More recently, China has become a large exporter of caviar. In 2017, around 45% of all caviar shipped to the U.S. came from China.

How Is Caviar Served?

Caviar is a statement piece in the culinary world. It is consumed as much for appearances as it is for flavor.

  • On a spoon. Caviar is often served on its own. Caviar is kept chilled and served on a bed of ice. It is eaten with a special spoon made of bone or mother of pearl, as a metal spoon is said to alter its taste. Caviar is meant to be eaten in small bites to truly appreciate it.
  • As an appetizer. Caviar is most often served as an appetizer. It is delivered on a neutral-tasting food, like buttered toast points. Caviar is also served in a blini, a Russian pancake, and rolled together with sour cream.
  • Paired. When caviar is combined with other foods it is always a simple combination so the flavor and texture of the eggs are the highlights of every bite. A dollop of crème fraîche can add a creamy texture against the pop of the caviar.

5 Substitutes for Caviar

In the nineteenth century, people began eating eggs from other types of fish and other species of sturgeon. While they have not reached the level of sophistication as Caspian sturgeon caviar, these alternatives are flavorful and more economical.

  • Salmon roe. Salmon caviar’s red eggs are often used in Japanese cuisine as a garnish. It often comes from Coho Salmon or Chinook Salmon native to the Pacific Northwest. It delivers that classic pop when bitten.
  • Trout roe. Trout produce larger, golden eggs that are used in ways similar to true caviar: as a garnish or an appetizer.
  • Hackleback. This sturgeon species hails from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Similar to beluga caviar, these eggs are nutty and black or dark brown.
  • Paddlefish caviar. Another freshwater sturgeon from the United States, paddlefish produce eggs similar in taste to the wild sturgeon of the Caspian Sea with a buttery, earthy flavor.
  • Seaweed caviar. For vegetarians or anyone who does not like the taste or texture of fish caviar, seaweed shaped into pearl-sized balls and mixed with salt and spices, offer another healthy, and sustainable, alternative to caviar.

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