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Caviar Basics

New to Caviar? Then Read This

As someone who's always been on a budget, I've never understood as much about caviar as I'd like to know. After all, I've always told myself, what's the point of getting to know a delicacy that I can rarely afford to enjoy, anyway?

I was fortunate enough to attend Petrossian's caviar seminar at the NYC Wine & Food Festival, and that's when I realized my thinking's been a little backward. After tasting a handful of varieties, I realized that's why I should get better acquainted with caviar: so that when I do want to make the splurge, it's easy to make well-educated purchasing decisions.

Among some of the facts I learned: caviar is only one fish (sturgeon) but composed of many species (such as osetra, beluga, sevruga, and kaluga) — and almost everything you'll come across today is farmed. Keep reading to see more caviar basics.

Sustainability and production

  • Due to overfishing, the United State Fish and Wildlife Service has banned caviar imports from Russia's famous Caspian Sea. So if you see Caspian caviar, it's either been smuggled in or it's at least six or seven years old.
  • Sevruga and beluga caviar may be famous, but both come from endangered species, so likewise, you won't find much of them in the United States, if at all.
  • According to Petrossian, the notion that it's possible to "milk" a sturgeon for its roe without having to kill it is something of a myth. It's possible to extract roe without killing the fish, but the removal process is not able to keep the delicate eggs intact.
  • Historically, some of the best caviars come from the Caspian and Iran. Today, it's not as important to talk about the region where caviar comes from as it is about the species of the sturgeon, since all the fish are raised in controlled farms.
  • A sturgeon takes five years to mature, at which point it's caught and killed for consumption and caviar production. The sturgeon roe is then cleaned, preserved with salt, and aged for at least six months to create complexity of flavor. (You don't want to try fresh caviar; it purportedly tastes like raw egg yolk!) After production, caviar is evaluated for quality and graded on a numerical scale.

Evaluating caviar

  • Caviar should be evaluated on taste (not too fishy, but multidimensional in flavor), consistency (it shouldn't be mushy!), egg size (the bigger, the better), and color (in theory, lighter caviar is superior).
  • To taste caviar, put a little bit on your tongue with a non-reactive spoon, then press your tongue to the roof of your mouth to break the eggs, thereby releasing their flavor.
  • When you're enjoying a high-quality caviar, it should be eaten alone in order to get the most complete tasting experience.
  • Once you buy caviar, eat it sooner rather than later. Caviar's shelf life is eight weeks, and it should be stored in temperatures just above freezing.

Other surprising facts

  • Caviar isn't great for a salt-restricted diet, but for how much we eat of it, it's not high in calories. It's also full of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Historically, caviar was eaten on blinis or toast points rather than with a mother-of-pearl, horn, or plastic spoon because it was preserved in too much salt to be consumed on its own.
  • No Petrossian caviar is ever mixed together, so you'll never buy a tin of kaluga combined with, say, Shassetra. No only that, but the actual fish won't ever commingle. One tin of caviar will come from one fish only, and the company actually assigns numbers to each fish in order to track quality.

When, if ever, do you eat caviar?

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