Ingredient Intelligence

What to Know About Caviar Before Buying It

published Nov 29, 2022
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Credit: Costco

Caviar is fish eggs, aka fish roe. Although all female fish produce eggs, caviar comes from the sturgeon family of fish. Caviar is sold in small quantities, and although it is typically expensive, the cost depends on which grade and variety of caviar you buy. No matter what type of caviar you get, it is a salty delicacy eaten in small quantities.

Is Caviar Fish Eggs?

Yes, caviar contains just one ingredient: fish eggs, or roe. Caviar is made naturally when female sturgeon produce eggs. However, an important distinction between regular fish eggs and caviar is that the latter must come from sturgeon eggs. A further defining factor is that the roe in caviar is unfertilized. (Sturgeon eggs don’t become fertilized by males until the females release them naturally. In the case of caviar, they are harvested from the fish.)

What’s the Difference Between Fish Roe and Caviar?

All caviar is fish roe, but not all fish roe is caviar. To be classified as caviar, caviar must come from sturgeon fish. (And it must be unfertilized.) All caviar should be clearly labeled, including information about its grade, variety, and country of origin.

How Is Caviar Harvested?

Like most seafood, caviar can be wild or farmed. In the wild, caviar is harvested when sturgeon populations migrate from saltwater to freshwater in the spring. Farmed sturgeon are closely watched through ultrasound (really!) to know when they are ready to produce eggs.

Traditionally, and most often today, the sturgeon is killed in order to harvest its eggs. There are some proponents of “no kill caviar,” who remove the eggs and sew the fish back up and then release it, although most sturgeon are killed before the eggs are harvested, then the rest of the fish is cleaned, portioned, and sold. (Sturgeon meat is firm and dense — closer in texture to pork than a flaky white fish like halibut. In addition to being cooked as a “steak,” sturgeon can be smoked and sold as a popular appetizing. You may also find caviar harvested using an unconventional and much rarer method of massaging the fish’s belly to stimulate and release the eggs

Historically, caviar came from the Caspian and Black Sea, although now caviar is harvested around the world. Wild caviar has been overfarmed over the course of hundreds of years, and for that reason farmed caviar is increasingly common — and popular.

What Are the Grades of Caviar?

There are two different classifications, or grades, of caviar. Size, texture, taste, color, and aroma all matter when classifying caviar types. Some producers of caviar create distinctions and brand-specific grades, but that’s mostly just marketing.

Caviar is available pasteurized or unpasteurized. Like raw milk cheeses, unpasteurized caviar carries with it a larger risk of food-borne illness. Here are the two grades of caviar.

Grade A Caviar: This is the best of the best. Grade A caviar is firm, plump, juicy, fragrant, and delicious (if you’re into caviar, anyway).

Grade B Caviar: Still good! The eggs may be less perfectly formed (including split or misshapen ones). Because Grade B is less superlative, it should cost less than Grade A caviar.

What Types of Caviar Are There?

There are many caviar types. Strictly speaking, caviar is named for the variety of sturgeon it comes from. But fish roe is now harvested all over the world and sold as caviar alternatives. You may even have a local or regional supplier of caviar, depending on where you live. That said, when it comes to real-deal caviar, these are just a few widely-available varieties. These are the most common kinds of caviar (and a few other types of edible fish roe).

American Caviar

Yep, you can get caviar produced in the United States. The sturgeon used for American caviar generally live in lakes. All American caviar is farmed, rather than wild-sourced. Flavors, sizes, and textures vary.

Beluga Caviar

Caviar aficionados call this the best of the best. Beluga sturgeon are huge — we’re talking thousands of pounds huge — and produce elegant charcoal-colored eggs. It’s also the most expensive, but don’t worry about affording it because you can’t buy it anyway: Beluga caviar is banned in the United States due to overfishing in the Black and Caspian Seas.

Kaluga Caviar

Kaluga caviar comes from freshwater sturgeon, and its eggs are considered a close second to Beluga. Their eggs are medium to large, with a mild flavor that borders on buttery. It’s legal to buy in the United States, so this is a good pick for special occasions.

Osetra Caviar

Osetra caviar is known for its versatility and accessibility to first-timers. It may also be spelled Ossetra, Oscetra, Osietra, or a few other variations. Osetra has a nutty, creamy flavor that’s not as briny or “seaworthy” as others.

Caviar Alternatives

This category of caviar pushes the definition: It’s not really caviar. The roe from salmon, paddlefish, whitefish, trout, and plenty more fresh and saltwater fish is regularly branded as caviar, although they’re actually caviar alternatives. (Not sturgeons!) That doesn’t mean these roe aren’t delicious, though, and they’re worth seeking out. 

Credit: Photos: Getty Images; Design: Kitchn

What Does Caviar Taste Like?

Caviar has a briny flavor. It’s salty and seafood-y at the same time. Like oysters, caviar tastes like the sea. High-quality caviar should be subtle and delicate in flavor — a tin of caviar should not smell or taste like four-day-old fish at the seafood counter. 

Caviar-lovers note that each variety offers subtle differences (like olive oils). Some are fruity and bright, while others are salty, and others taste buttery and even nutty.

Eating caviar is also a texture-forward experience. Fans of caviar say that it should “pop” between your teeth as you bite it. The eggs should be firm and taut, with a bouncy feel in your mouth.

Is Caviar Expensive?

Yes, caviar is expensive — for two reasons. Rare varieties of caviar are priced accordingly, but all caviar takes a lot of labor and processing to produce — that’s why it costs so much. Generally speaking, caviar starts around $50 to $70 per ounce. The highly sought-after varieties cost hundreds for the same amount. Luckily, the serving size of caviar is small. Experts recommend about 30 grams — one ounce — per person.