A Beginner's Guide to Caviar | Wine Enthusiast
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A Beginner’s Guide to Caviar

“Timeless, sophisticated craftsmanship, elegance, beauty, discovery and great taste.”

Might this be the description of a classic opera? A breathless appraisal of an architectural icon? Perhaps a transcendent novel? No, it’s how John Knierim, vice president and secretary of Calvisius Caviar USA, waxes poetic about fish eggs—sturgeon, to be exact. It’s an experience to enjoy year-round, and an easy way to make an extravagant event out of a ho-hum Wednesday night.

Historically, caviar refers exclusively to the roe of certain sturgeon, from the Caspian and Black seas (Beluga, Oscietra and Sevruga), but overfishing and mismanagement have shifted production to sturgeon farms around the world. There’s virtually no wild caviar for sale commercially, and the term is used much more loosely in modern times.

Selections from Seattle Caviar Co. / Photo courtesy Seattle Caviar Co., Facebook
Selections from Seattle Caviar Co. / Photo courtesy Seattle Caviar Co., Facebook

“Sturgeon are a very sensitive critter,” says Dale Sherrow, owner of Seattle Caviar, which has been selling caviar and other gourmet items since 1990. “They need a large area to grow and be happy in, and if they’re not happy, [or] they don’t eat, they don’t produce roe. If you want good product, you gotta have good fish.”

Sevruga caviar, once one of the most bountiful varieties due to its relative quickness to produce roe, has been largely supplanted by caviar from Siberian sturgeons, as they’re easier to farm than the Sevruga. Advances in aquaculture mean better quality and availability, not just of the exalted sturgeon caviars, but domestic sturgeon and other fish roes. Some of these even rival the best Russian caviars of eras past.

Buying Caviar

When shopping for caviar, the most important thing is to trust your source. Your seller should be able to tell you about the environment in which the fish live, the water quality and whether things like pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones are used.

Since 1998, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) governs international trade in sturgeon, including caviar. It requires a well-documented chain of custody from farm to consumer, as well as labeling that specifies species, country of origin, year of harvest and more.

While the container you buy will likely have been repackaged and not show this information, you can ask your seller for the CITES documentation. If they refuse or don’t have it, you may want to rethink your purchase.

Storing Caviar
An unopened tin of caviar should be stored between 28°F–32°F, and it can be kept that way up to four weeks. The best way is to lay the tin on a dish towel over ice in the bottom drawer of your refrigerator. Once opened, caviar should be eaten within two days.

“For me, it’s critically important that a seller lists country of origin,” says Sherrow, citing the abundance of Chinese-produced caviar in the U.S. market. “We don’t handle [Chinese caviar] because we don’t like the waters it comes from and some of the chemicals that they use.”

Knierim agrees, but adds it’s important to know your species.

“There’s no enforcement on labeling laws for caviar in the USA,” says Knierim. “So much is labeled Beluga or Oscietra. ‘Beluga’ is almost always Chinese hybrid caviar. Oscietra is almost always Siberian.”

Types of Caviar

Sturgeon Roe (Acipenseridae)

Get to know a fish: Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii) / Getty
Get to know a fish: Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii) / Getty

Because terms like “Oscietra” and “Sevruga” are sometimes used as marketing terms, it’s good to be familiar with the species names. With sturgeon roe, more expensive isn’t necessarily better. You may prefer one type to another.

Beluga (Huso Huso): The importation of Beluga has been banned in the U.S. since 2006. Anything you see sold as Beluga here is either a hybrid fish or false advertising. Save it for when you’re abroad.

White sturgeon (A. Transmontanus): Also called Pacific sturgeon, is native to North America and produces a world-class caviar with a buttery flavor and texture that some compare to Oscietra.

Many believe that only sturgeon roe deserves the title of “caviar.” All sturgeon are in the Acipenseridae family, though most available caviars come only from sturgeon in the Acipenser genus (exceptions being Beluga and Hackleback, from the Huso and Scaphirhynchus genera, respectively).

Oscietra (A. Gueldenstaedtii): A distinctive caviar that is nutty and smooth.

Sevruga (A. Stellatus): An intense, briny caviar with firm texture.

Siberian (A. Baerii): Earthy and sweet, a more affordable caviar that has its own passionate fans.

Other Roe

Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula): “A very good product for the price,” says Sherrow. With a fresh, complex flavor, it’s a terrific alternative to Sevruga.

Hackleback (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus): Hackleback, or “shovelnose,” is in the sturgeon family, though a different genus from the better-known caviar sturgeons. Its roe tends to be nuttier and stronger than paddlefish.

Salmon: “Salmon roe is one I eat probably three or four times a week, on buttered toast or maybe blinis with crème fraîche,” says Sherrow. “It’s a very unique roe, a large bead size with a big burst of salmon flavor.”

Trout: Similar to salmon roe, but much milder and with a smaller bead size.

Whitefish: Also called “American Golden,” this is a small, crunchy roe with clean flavor. It’s similar to the vendace, or bleak, roe that’s considered a delicacy in Sweden.

Tobiko/Masago/Lumpfish: You know these tiny eggs from your local sushi bar. Tobiko is flying-fish roe, larger (and considered finer) than masago, which is capelin or smelt roe, so fine as to almost have a powdery consistency. Lumpfish is a domestic version, usually heavily dyed and salted and only really suitable for garnishes.

Serving Caviar

Great caviar is ideally served simply and unadorned. If budget allows, serve at least one ounce per person.

Serve caviar in its tin (setting it on a bed of ice isn’t necessary), with blinis or buttered, thinly sliced toast points. Crème fraîche, shaved hard-boiled egg and chives may be served alongside.

Your caviar should be “malossol,” which is Russian for “low salt.” While other fish roes can be delicious when blended with extra ingredients, great caviar should have no ingredients besides roe and salt.

It’s been said that you shouldn’t serve caviar with a metal spoon. So why is it packaged in metal? The only metal to avoid is silver, which will tarnish on contact with caviar and impart a metallic taste. The tradition of using mother-of-pearl spoons dates prior to the 20th-century proliferation of stainless steel.

Which comes first, the eggs or the eggs? Caviar on scrambled eggs with toast / Photo courtesy Jameel Winter, flickr
Which comes first, the eggs or the eggs? Caviar on scrambled eggs with toast / Photo courtesy Jameel Winter, flickr

Cooking with Caviar

The phrase “cooking with caviar” can cause panic among purists. However, just as well-made blinis, buttered toast points and crème fraîche can highlight caviar’s flavor and texture, other ingredients can also make for positive pairings. Most caviars will work well in all these preparations, though a recommended roe is suggested for each.

Spaghetti with Salmon Roe

Caviar is great with simple buttered pasta, or try this easy white-wine cream sauce.

Boil 8 ounces spaghetti in well-salted water until fully cooked. Drain well. While pasta cooks, boil 2 finely minced shallots in ½ cup white wine until syrupy. Add ¼ cup heavy cream, and cook until it thickens. Salt lightly (the roe will add more salt). Toss spaghetti with sauce. Top with 4 ounces salmon roe. Serves 2.

Steak Tartare with Siberian Caviar

Keep your tartare simple to let the caviar shine.

Combine ½ pound finely minced beef tenderloin, 2 anchovy fillets that have been minced into a paste, 1 minced shallot, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Salt to taste. Using a ring mold, form into two patties and top with 1½ ounces Siberian caviar each. Serves 2.

Simple Caviar Serving Ideas

Burrata with Paddlefish Roe
Burrata essentially takes the place of crème fraîche. Serve caviar atop or alongside fresh burrata, with thinly sliced toasted bread.
Scrambled Eggs or Omelette with White Sturgeon Caviar
Soft, slowly scrambled eggs with caviar added are wonderful, but a perfect omelette adorned with a stripe of caviar is even better.
Freshly made blini / Photo courtesy Foodista, flickr
Freshly made blini / Photo courtesy Foodista, flickr

Easy Blini Recipe

This recipe will help you make small, delicate blinis. Besides caviar, these Russian pancakes are great for minced vegetables, smoked salmon or egg salad.

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup buckwheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus additional for greasing pan
  • 2 large eggs

Whisk together flours, yeast, sugar and salt. Heat milk and butter over medium heat, constantly stirring until butter melts. Remove from heat, and cool to 110°F. Whisk milk mixture into flour mixture until smooth. Cover and let stand in warm area until doubled in volume, at least 1½ hours. (At this point, batter can be refrigerated overnight.) When ready to cook, whisk eggs into batter until smooth (batter will deflate).

Place large nonstick skillet or griddle over medium heat and coat lightly with butter. Spoon 1 tablespoon of batter on to griddle for each blini, making sure they don’t touch. Cook until blini tops are speckled with bubbles, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook until bottoms are golden brown, about 1 minute. Transfer blinis to a plate and loosely cover with a dish towel or foil. Cooked blinis can also be kept warm in a 250°F oven, loosely covered with foil on a baking sheet. Makes about 36 blinis.

Pairing Wine With Caviar

Champagne is an obvious choice, but not all Champagnes are equally appropriate, says Emilie Perrier, beverage director of New York City restaurant Gabriel Kreuther. “Drier is always better with caviar,” she says. “Higher acid and zero dosage. Specifically, zero-dosage blancs de noirs are great and highlight saltiness.” Champagne isn’t the only choice, however. Some people feel that its bubbles distract from the subtle texture of the caviar. In this case, Perrier goes straight to Burgundy. “A nice, crisp Chablis would be great for its briny quality, or a buttery but mineral Puligny-Montrachet,” she says.