Yes, caviar is fish eggs — salt-cured eggs from sturgeon fish, to be more precise.
Today, there are a variety of different kinds of caviar, each coming from different sturgeon fish primarily in Russia or the United States. “The original caviar came from a wild fish species in the Caspian Sea,” Batakova tells The Manual.
Russian caviar, which includes the iconic beluga fish (not to be confused with the beluga whale), is more expensive than U.S. caviar simply because it is harder to get. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it tastes better,” Batakova adds.
Note: Caviar is not to be confused with roe, which is another term for fish eggs. There are also a variety of substitute caviars made with roe from different fish species, but “true” caviar comes from sturgeons.
Nothing says luxury and excess quite like a tin of caviar. What is caviar and, ultimately, are you fancy enough to eat it? Surprisingly, this garnish can be enjoyed for as little as $20 and is a rock-star condiment on a simple egg in the morning, a toasted baguette with butter, or a baked potato.
All of our caviar questions are answered by Valeria Batakova, the bar manager at OLMA Caviar, one of the most premium caviar boutiques in New York City. Below, we cover all of the basics to have you snacking on caviar like a pro in no time.
Caviar has a delicate taste, much like oysters, and is typically put on a small puff pastry cup then topped with crème Fraiche (aka fancy sour cream), finely chopped egg whites, and chopped red onion. “You don’t put lemon on it, even though it’s visually garnished with lemon. This can change or even spoil the taste,” Batakova explains.
When serving caviar, it is very important to not use a metal spoon. OLMA and other caviar bars serve with pearl spoons, as the metal has a slightly acidic reaction with the caviar and changes the taste. A tablespoon or two is the perfect amount of caviar for a good taste.
“Vodka or bubbles,” declares Batakova. “Like a dry champagne, not a sweet, or a shot of vodka.”
“The more salty caviar is usually darker in color,” Batakova says. “But it also depends on the type of fish, type of salt, and processing method.”
You’ll want your caviar preserved with the malossol process. This Russian word describes a salting process that infuses caviar with three-to-five-percent salt for optimal preservation and flavor enhancement. Other methods are notorious for over-salting or pressing their caviar. All you need to know is “malossol,” so look for that on the label.
“First-timers should try American wild caviar. It doesn’t cost too much — about $26 for one ounce,” says Batakova. You don’t need to break your budget trying caviar, especially if you don’t know if you’ll like it. “Most people think caviar is so expensive since it used to be food for royalty, but it’s not,” Batakova elaborates.
Best is subjective. “The quality of caviar doesn’t mean the most expensive is the best. The pricing relates to how rare it is,” Batakova explains. Consumer preference is the ultimate judge, depending on if the person likes something more salty, mild, creamy, or buttery.
“Some people really happen to like the taste of the cheapest caviar, even though they can afford any,” Batakova says of her clientele. “It also depends on the celebration and if you want something special to eat that is very hard to get.”
Wild-caught American caviars have a range of different types and tastes, from smooth and buttery to salty and intense. Start with either Hackleback caviar, which has medium-sized eggs and a firm texture, or Paddlefish caviar, which is more creamy with a slightly fishier taste.
If you like your first taste of caviar, move on to exploring Russian types.
Russia has three common caviars: 1) Osetra caviar harvested from sturgeons captured in the Caspian Sea, which ranges from $35 to $300 and has medium-large beads; 2) Kaluga Caviar, which is famous for its powerful yet smooth and buttery flavor and starts at $50 (at least) and goes up to $500-plus; and 3) Beluga Caviar, which can run you over $1,000 easy.
You’ll have to fly to Russia to grab a bite of beluga since its importation was banned in the U.S. in 2005. That’s because the beluga sturgeon fish is critically endangered. “I believe there is only one company that carries beluga caviar today, but it is a hybrid,” says Batakova, “but it is closest to authentic beluga. The eggs are slightly smaller, the color will bridge from deep golden brown to black-ish, and the taste is a more intense taste.”