Caviar - More Than Just Sturgeon Eggs
You either love or hate the idea of eating caviar. Basically you are eating the eggs (roe) of sturgeon, a fish found in various parts of the world but most notably in the Caspian Sea near Russia. This is where you find the largest and highest quality caviar and the most expensive.
You can also find Chinese and American caviar but they are smaller and don't have the quality or flavor of caviar coming from the Caspian Sea.
The eggs are harvested from sturgeon and sold with very little processing except for the addition of salt. The flavor is fishy and sometimes described as briny and can be an acquired taste. I remember my first experience with caviar was much like Tom Hanks in the movie Big but now I love it.
3 Main Types of Caviar
The three most popular types of caviar come from three different sturgeons thus creating a common grading system for buying these highly prized eggs. Each has its own unique qualities but which one you like depends on your own personal tastes.
- Beluga - the most expensive of the three and also the largest. Beluga sturgeon can reach 19 feet in length and weigh more than one ton. They produce the largest eggs that are a range from gray to black in color. They are also the most rare of the three adding to the expense and are not related in any way to the Beluga whale.
- Osetra - another large sturgeon reaching an average 7 feet in length and weighing in at over 500 pounds. The eggs from the Osetra sturgeon range in color from yellowish gray to dark brown with the gold Osetra, also know as "royal caviar" being the rarest . Osetra caviar is known for having a stronger flavor than Beluga most likely because it swims in deeper, colder waters providing a different diet.
- Sevruga - the smallest with the briniest flavor. Not as expensive as the other two, the roe ranges in color from medium gray to black. It is the most abundant and can weigh up to 150 pounds.
Other Types of Caviar
Just to confuse things more, other types of fish including salmon, lumpfish and whitefish call their eggs caviar. You often see them used in sushi bars and in supermarkets. They are inexpensive compared to Caspian Sea caviar and expect for cooking purposes should be avoided. Those small black eggs from lumpfish you find in every supermarket may look like the real thing, but they don't have the flavor.
How to Buy Caviar
Caviar is processed by straining and sorting the eggs by size and color. A mild salt (Malossol) is added to the eggs to prevent freezing. The eggs are then packed in 4 pound tins containers and exported.
An importer repackages the caviar into smaller tins or jars that you can purchase at high end markets. The typical size is 1 ounce containers.
IMPORTANT - Beluga caviar always comes in blue tins, Osetra in yellow tins and Sevruga caviar in red tins.
- IMPORTANT: The US Fish and Wildlife has stopped the import of Beluga caviar into the United States to help rebuild the diminishing stocks in the Caspian Sea. If you find any Beluga caviar being sold here, it was harvested before the fall of 2005 or brought in by poacher illegally. Fresh Beluga is not currently available.
- Do Your Homework - This stuff is expensive so learn everything you can about the various types of caviar and their different grades. Find a distributor of imported caviar you trust and don't be afraid to ask questions based on what you've learned. If they don't want to answer your questions, find some place else to spend your money.
- Buy Only Fresh Caviar - Because caviar is extremely perishable, once it is imported and repackaged, the shelf life is only about 3 to 4 weeks unopened. Once opened, it's good for about three days and that's if refrigerated at an ideal temperature of 30 degrees F. So ask about dates.
- Only Buy As Much As You Are Going To Serve - There is basically no shelf life on expensive caviar, two or three days so plan to plan accordingly.
- Don't Buy Caviar in a Supermarket - In general, most caviar sold in supermarkets is not what you are looking for. You must go to a high end gourmet store or establishment that specializes in caviar. Lucky for us, many of these stores like GourmetFoodStore.com now sell online. Either way, make sure the person you are dealing with is very knowledgeable about caviar.
- Look for the term "Malossol" - it means lightly salted and is a good indication that the caviar is high-end.
- Taste Before Buying - Not always possible, especially over the Internet, but some top dealers will allow you to sample before purchasing.
- Look for Discounts - The holidays is a big caviar buying time of the year and you often find caviar on sale. Just be careful you are not buying old or inferior product.
- Don't Buy Black Market Caviar - there is more and more illegal caviar on the market today and it may eventually ruin the availability of sturgeon caviar sometime in the near future. Be sure to ask your supplier if the caviar you are buying is legally imported.
What's It Going To Cost
Prices will vary depending on they type you buy, where you buy it & how much you buy. Most likely you will be buying it in the popular 1 ounce jar or tin and here's what you can expect to pay:
- Beluga Caviar - not currently available according to the US Fish and Wildlife
- Osetra Caviar - Ranges from $90 to $140 per ounce
- Sevruga Caviar - Ranges from $95 to $ $125 per ounce
Storing Fresh Caviar
Caviar does not have a very long shelf life. Once opened, you only have 3-4 days, max, before your expensive caviar is no longer edible. The ideal temperature for storing caviar is about 30 degrees F. My refrigerator is set for about 33 degrees F so I would need to store caviar in the coldest section. Even so, I try to only buy as much as I will need for my party.
Some experts suggest wrapping opened tins in plastic wrap to reduce the chance of oxidation. My suggestion is to buy only what you will eat in one day, so you won't even have to worry about getting out the plastic wrap.
Do not freeze caviar except for domestic Golden Whitefish caviar and Salmon caviar. These two types freeze well but all others will not. Freezing destroys their delicate texture, leaving your caviar mushy and without the "pop" that you expect when you eat high-quality, fresh caviar.
- How Much To Serve - really depends on who you are serving it to but figure on 1 ounce per person if serving alone and 1/2 ounce person if serving on top of hors d'oeuvres or garnishes for canapes.
- How to Serve It - Keep it simple and let the caviar do the talking. Placing the tin in a bed of crushed ice not only looks elegant, it helps keep the fragile eggs fresh.
- Mother-of Pearl Spoons - I have read you should only use natural materials for serving caviar like mother-of pearl, bone, horn because metal will oxidize the caviar when it comes in contact with it. I'm not sure how that can be possible especially since caviar is stored in metal tins.
- I have also read that this is only true with sterling silver. Either way, the spoons are not that expensive especially when you consider the cost of the caviar. Plus they look great next to the tin of caviar.
- What to Serve - The classic accompaniments are toast points, potatoes & blini (small pancakes). Sometimes you will find creme fraiche served too. I suggest "less is more". Let the natural briny flavors of the expensive caviar assault your taste buds. Don't cover them up with a bunch of distractions.
- What to Drink - The classic drink with fresh caviar is ice-cold vodka because of its neutral taste. Some people enjoy a glass of champagne with their caviar. It's up to your personal preferences. Try to avoid any drink that will alter or overwhelm the clean flavors of the caviar.
Where to Buy Online
GourmetFoodStore.com - these guys sell all the high-end imported fresh caviar as well as a great selection of the more economical American caviar, plus Foie Gras, Pate, Truffles, Cheese and other high end gourmet products.
based on a recipe from The Splendid Table
Makes approximately 24 blini
- 1 envelope active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons)
- 1 cup warm water (115°F.)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups warm milk, or a little more as needed
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 beaten egg yolks
- 4 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
- 2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
- 2 egg whites
- Peanut oil, for frying
- melted butter, for brushing
How to Make Blini
In a small bowl, stir together the yeast, warm water, sugar and first measure of flour. Cover and set aside until doubled, about one hour.
Beat in all the rest of the ingredients, except for the egg whites, using the lesser amount of flour. Once incorporated, whisk until smooth and then cover. Set aside to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
Stir the batter well again, recover, and let rise once more for about 45 minutes.
Whisk the whites to soft peaks and fold into the batter. Don't whip the egg whites before you are ready for them, as they won't hold. Let the batter rest for another ten minutes.
Heat a well-seasoned 8" cast iron skillet or heavy-bottomed nonstick skillet over medium heat. Rub the pan with peanut oil. Ladle in about 1/4 cup of batter, tilting and swirling the pan to completely cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of batter. Cook until the top of the blin is bubbly and the bottom is golden brown. Carefully turn and cook the other side for about 30 seconds, brushing some melted butter on the cooked side.
Repeat with another 1/4 cup of batter. Taste this one (the first is generally for the cook) and check to see if it needs more salt or sugar. If the pancake breaks when you try to fold it, whisk the reserved 1/4 cup of flour into the batter. If the pancake is too thick, whisk in a little more warm milk.
Continue making blini until you have used all the batter. Serve hot or warm with crème fraiche and caviar.
To make crème fraiche, whisk 2 tablespoons of buttermilk into 1 cup of heavy cream. If you can find it, use pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized cream. Let the mixture sit out at room temperature until nicely thickened. This could take up to 36 hours, but check it every 12 hours.
Once thickened, refrigerate until cold.