Once strictly reserved for royalty—rich, briny and buttery with a characteristic pop or burst-in-the-mouth texture–good caviar is a welcome treat for the sophisticated palate. Whether you are a fan or simply curious, caviar can be a complicated purchase: knowing what to buy, where to buy it and how to store and serve it. At $80 for a 30g (1-ounce) portion to upwards of $12,000 for 1,000g, it’s wise to study up on the finer nuances.
Friend or Faux?
Plain and simple, true caviar is the washed, dried and cured roe from sturgeon. Everything else is marketing and branding. These imposters include choupique or bowfin caviar, salmon caviar, American sturgeon caviar (paddlefish), olive oil caviar and molecular products new to the culinary scene.
Currently all sturgeon caviar sold legally in the U.S. is from sustainable farms. Sturgeon is humanely harvested and the delicate roe is carefully removed and then cured to become caviar. Although newer “hand-milking” methods have been developed and used, most in the caviar industry tout the traditional methods as superior and resulting in a product with firmer beads.
Caviar is a globally sourced product. Russia is most commonly known for wild Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea. However, due to overfishing, pollution and possible extinction as well as geopolitical conflicts and trade embargos, this caviar has been banned in the U.S since late 2000, with only small quantities being sold in Europe.
There are more than 20 different types of sturgeon in the family Acipenseridae, and many countries have indigenous species that are also farmed.
The United States is the largest consumer of caviar, but it is a globally distributed product with a rich international history. There was a time when the American caviar business was second only to Russia. Large quantities of American caviar were exported to Europe, and even re-exported to the U.S. as “Russian” caviar.
Eventually the sturgeon population was severely depleted, and production diminished significantly. Sturgeon populations once abundant became endangered.
Sustainable farming for caviar has been an important development, as the species is susceptible to pollution and overharvesting due to its slow growth period. Depending on the species, sturgeon can take five to 20+ years to reach maturity—making the business of caviar a long-term, generational investment.
When it comes to caviar, we are not in any way talking fast food, thus the high cost of the delicacy.
“I like caviar coming from sturgeon that is raised on the West Coast,” notes Terranea’s executive chef Bernard Ibarra. “Most of my career, I was exposed to Petrossian; hence I enjoy its high-quality product.”
All About Taste
Individual caviars have unique flavor profiles and subtle nuances, similar to wine or chocolate. Species, harvesting methods and processing methods impact the flavor and characteristics of the roe. The preferred trend is “Malossal,” meaning “little salt” or less than 5%.
Generally, one should expect buttery, nutty, flavors of the sea (not fishy) and a firm but not overly hard texture—plus that desirable pop. Taste caviar by placing a small amount (½ teaspoon or so) in your mouth and crush the roe on the roof of the mouth. Breathe in to get the full effect on the senses.
Caviar purveyors work with many farms and develop their own signature brand through an artful partnership and careful practice of hand-selecting and grading their own product. Caviar is graded at the farm and then graded again by the distributor. Farmed sturgeon aquaculture and harvesting offers consistent end products with greater sustainability and quality control verses wild products.
If in doubt about your product before purchasing, ask for more information and look for a CITES label. Every importer and exporter is required by federal law to have a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) label on sturgeon caviar.
Reputable purveyors will be able to back up their product with the following information.
- Species: direct from the source, will list a code
- Country of origin
- Farm harvest date: year of packaging at the source and secondary packing information
- CITES permit: certificate of origin and labeling report
- Traceability: lot number identifying supplier “best consumed by” date
Out of the many varieties of sturgeon available, five are the most commonly used for caviar production. However the most widely traded today are the white sturgeon—Ossetra, Transmontanous and Sevruga. Beluga offered in the U.S. legally is not wild Russian beluga from the Caspian Sea.
Only sturgeon caviar can be labeled “caviar.” All other products must list species before caviar on the label. Beluga sturgeon can take 20 to 25 years until mature and ready for harvesting the roe, thus making it the most expensive product with a long investment period in the harvesting process.
After careful selection from farms for consistency of product and processing method and grading (1 being best and 2 essentially the runner-up), purveyors of fine caviar then add their own grading system and unique branding to each jar they sell. Standard terms of Imperial, Royal and Classic are not consistent across retailers.
What sets one brand apart from the other comes down to details of sourcing, vendor relationships established over many years, and development of their own branded product and reputation in the industry. The most expensive caviar from a particular vendor is typically deemed their best-offered product in terms of grading, but personal taste trumps price when it comes to selection and purchasing caviar.
Caviar can be purchased in specialty stores, some grocery stores (selection is limited, but regulations on purchasing caviar from distributors are stringent) and through online retailers. Some boutique caviar retailers are great sources to learn more about your preference and will let you taste before you buy. To further educate your palate, sign up for a tasting class if available.
Online resources are abundant and are fine if you are familiar with the reputation of the retailer; otherwise it can be a bit potluck. Know your source, look to see if they are associated with top chefs, and have the proper labeling and documentation for their product before buying online.
To store caviar, place it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. It should be held between 28º to 32º and never frozen. An unopened jar of caviar should last two months; however check for an expiration date on the label.
Once opened it is preferable to consume immediately, although some retailers suggest covering with plastic to prevent airflow, rotating to redistribute the oil and consuming within one to two days. The delicate roe is susceptible to air, which will cause rapid degrading of the product. Pasteurized caviar has a longer shelf life; however it is considered inferior in texture, flavor and overall quality.
Serve & Enjoy
Caviar connoisseurs are passionate and indulge in all the luxuriousness that surrounds the delicacy. A purist will go for simple presentations with the focus on the product—served on a sweet buttered toast point, potato chip or a warm blini.
Adding chopped egg, onions and crème fraîche accompaniments detract rather than enhance the flavor of a high-quality roe, but for some it may add a perceived value to the experience. Enjoy with cold Russian vodka, a dry wine or Champagne. You’ll find different caviar pairs better with different products.
Small accent amounts of caviar can be added to hors d’oeuvres, for a sophisticated touch and presentation. Traditions on the culinary scene have changed over the years as more products become available.
Before opening, remove from the refrigerator and let sit five minutes or so. Once open, immediately place in crushed ice and serve directly from the jar it was purchased in. This prevents any damage from trying to transfer the product.
Use mother-of-pearl, horn, bone or gold spoons for service. Wood or plastic utensils are acceptable options versus metals that will affect the flavor of the caviar and taint the whole jar. Caviar is delicate and will degrade quickly once exposed to air. It’s preferred to serve small amounts that will be consumed within a short period of time.
Prefer to have your caviar served in style? At Terranea, caviar may be enjoyed at mar’sel and ordered from the in-room dining menu. Bon appetit!
Written by Kara Mickelson