Caviar: An Overview
Contributed by: Andrew DeLaVergne
Few gourmet foods exemplify the affluent lifestyle quite so readily as caviar. Elegant, rare, and expensive, caviar is not the snack of the working class. Given the expense, it is important to understand how to select and serve caviar before making your purchase.
Caviar is produced by extracting the roe, or eggs, from a fish and curing them with salt. Although the roe of any edible fish can be used as caviar, very few species of fish produce eggs of the proper quality to make the delicacy. Traditionally, caviar is only made from sturgeon roe, most typically extracted from Russian rare fish which have been captured as they head north up the Volga River from the Caspian Sea. Three species of sturgeon are particularly well known for the quality of their roe. Beluga is probably the best known Russian caviar producer. Its eggs are large (about 3.5 mm in diameter), very delicate, light to dark gray in color, and they have a light, smooth flavor. Beluga is considered to be the top quality caviar, very few sturgeon are caught each year and it typically costs about twice as much per ounce as the other sturgeon caviars. Osetra caviar is also of exceptional quality. The eggs are slightly smaller than those of the Beluga, but still fairly large. The color of the eggs varies from yellow to brown, and the flavor is slightly nutty, which distinguishes it from all other types of caviar. The least expensive sturgeon variety is Sevruga caviar. The medium grain eggs of the Sevruga have very thin, delicate shells and a very strong flavor.
Other freshwater fish and saltwater fish have recently been gaining in popularity for American caviar production. Salmon roe is commonly used now, particularly the roe of the pink, coho, or chum salmon of America's Pacific Northwest. Of course, salmon roe is not the same as sturgeon roe. Trout roe is also gaining popularity, as it is similar to salmon caviar in flavor and processing. The other major roe-producing fish is the lumpfish. Lumpfish eggs are inexpensive and readily available, as the fish produces the eggs in large quantities. Lumpfish caviar tends to be of mediocre quality, however, and is typically used only as a garnish. Lumpfish caviar is often dyed either red or black in order to resemble other, higher quality caviars.
The specie of fish is not the only factor used to determine the quality, of course. Proper curing is essential to achieve the peak quality, The eggs are salted, then tasted and graded. The top quality caviar will be labeled as "malossol," which translates from Russian as "little salt." Improper curing - the use of too much or too little salt during the curing process - will result in the caviar being labeled "petrossol." In addition, proper storage and transportation are essential in maintaining the product's quality. Caviar is highly perishable, and so it must be stored at 33 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent spoilage. The delicacy of the eggs, however, prohibit them from being frozen, so they must be kept above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Sealed in the original container, caviar may be stored for four to six weeks before the quality deteriorates. Once opened, the caviar should be eaten immediately.
The proper serving of caviar is essential, as it is an expensive delicacy, and you will want to get your money's worth out of it. The caviar should be opened, but left in the tin in which it came. Place the tin on a bed of crushed ice. Silver utensils will react with the roe to create a metallic flavor. As such, silver utensils should not be used in the serving of caviar. Instead, use utensils made from ivory, mother-of-pearl, or gold, if possible. When eating high quality (sturgeon) caviar, the roe should be either spooned directly into the mouth, or spooned onto toast points which have been lightly buttered with unsalted butter, or onto small buckwheat pancakes (blini) with a small amount of crème fraiche. The proper beverage accompaniment for caviar is either chilled, high quality Russian vodka, or ice water. Any other accompaniments or garnishes, such as onion, chopped egg, lemon, or sour cream, should not be used with high quality caviar, as they will distract from or drown out the flavor of the roe. These accompaniments may be used with other types of caviar, such as salmon or trout, but presumably, if you buy Beluga 000 caviar at an extraordinary price, you will want to taste the Beluga caviar, not lemons, onions, and eggs.
About the Author:
Andrew DeLaVergne is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and a member of the United States Personal Chefs' Association. He is the chef/owner of These Pans For Hire, a personal chef service which serves the greater Buffalo and Rochester areas. Andrew can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.