Frequently asked questions
Q: What is caviar?
A: The traditional definition of caviar is not simply "fish eggs". True caviar comes solely from fish of the Acipenseridae family, also known as sturgeon. The eggs are harvested from the female sturgeon before fertilization and then cured with salt to enhance the flavor and increase the shelf-life of the finished product. This combination of unfertilized sturgeon eggs and salt is the delicacy known as caviar.
Q: What is the difference between fish roe and caviar?
A: All caviar is roe but not all roe is caviar. Roe refers to any and all unfertilized eggs collected from marine animals. Thus, caviar is a type of fish roe but not all fish roe is caviar. In today’s market, roe from a variety of fish species is salt-cured like caviar and even referred to as caviar (salmon caviar, paddlefish caviar, etc.). However, to be qualified as caviar the roe not only has to be processed correctly but also has to come from the right fish. If the eggs are not from a sturgeon, the product is salted fish roe, not caviar. That being said, salted fish roe sold in the USA can be labeled caviar even though it’s really considered a caviar substitute.
Q. What is the difference between black caviar and red caviar?
A. There are many ways to categorize the various types of caviar and fish roe. The simplest, most traditional and widely used method of categorization is the black caviar/red caviar system, which separates caviar and fish roe based loosely on the color of the eggs. This classic technique does not include all types of fish roe, but defines black caviar as roe from a sturgeon and red caviar as roe from a salmonid. Fish roe that is from a sturgeon is considered black caviar because the eggs are commonly darker in color. Red, orange and even yellow fish roe from salmon and trout is known as red caviar despite not actually meeting the traditional definition for caviar.
Q. What is malossol?
A. Malossol is a Russian word that literally translates to "little salt". When used to describe caviar it refers to the idyllic salting process used to increase the shelf life of the highly perishable fish roe. A salt content of 3-5% is considered ideal because it not only preserves the roe but allows for enhancement of the product's natural flavors. The term malossol was traditionally reserved for only the highest grade caviar, with this one word signaling to consumers that what they are buying is quality in taste and has not been over-salted. Today most caviars and roes, regardless of quality, are cured to the model of the malossol process.
Q. What are the other processing methods used to preserve caviar?
A. There are three common ways in which caviar is initially processed to increase its shelf life. The highest quality method is the malossol process which, as was explained earlier, is best for enhancing the flavor while reasonably increasing the shelf life of the product. Caviar that would typically be cured as malossol, but is second in quality due to overly ripe, soft or damaged eggs typically becomes pressed caviar. With this method the eggs are first cured with slightly more salt, and then pressed into a hard jam-like substance. Because of higher salt and more concentrated flavor, pressed caviar is sometimes revered by connoisseurs for its strong taste. A step down from that is the semi-preserved or “salted” caviar which contains a much higher salt content to increase the product’s shelf stableness. Typically only used in producing lower quality caviar, this method often compromises taste for stability with a typical salt content of 8%. Finally, after the initial preservation process the caviar can be vacuum sealed and treated with high heat to remove any bacteria. Pasteurized caviar keeps for significantly longer than non-pasteurized caviar but the taste and texture can be negatively affected.
Q. What does caviar taste like?
A. It is not easy to explain. The taste of most black caviar is commonly interpreted with similar descriptions (a breath of the sea, a touch of salt, the delicate flavor of fresh fish, sometimes smooth and nutty, full of sweet brine that pops in your mouth and fills your nose, like good raw oysters but richer), however, each species produces caviar that is subtlety unique. In addition to the changes in flavor between different types of sturgeon, caviar from the same species of fish can taste different based on a number of factors. The health of the fish, the age and size of the fish, where it lived, whether it was farm-raised or wild-caught, where and when the fish’s roe was harvested, how much salt was used, whether the roe was pasteurized or not, if the roe was kept fresh or frozen after harvest, the container in which the roe was packed and many other factors can affect the taste.
Q. How does the taste of a caviar substitute compare to real caviar?
A. The eggs that are considered caviar substitutes come from countless species of fish and because of this there is no one description that fits them all. Caviar substitutes/salted non-sturgeon fish roes usually have a less unique flavor than caviar, often described as more salty and fish flavored than roe from a sturgeon. This description is more accurate for some roe than others. For example, paddlefish is not a sturgeon but produces eggs that look and taste like true caviar. With that, it can be said that some caviar substitutes are more of a “substitute” than others. Many types, such as red caviar and tobiko, are eaten more for the texture than the flavor, as they are used to add a crunch or pop to certain dishes such as sushi.
Q. What is the texture like when eating caviar/fish roe?
A. The texture of caviar is one of its most distinctive features and usually one that is easier to explain than the taste. In most instances, black caviar starts with a delicately firm texture that is transformed into a smooth and creamy, almost butter-like consistency, as it melts in your mouth. The larger eggs of older sturgeon sometimes subtlety “pop” in your mouth, but never quite like red caviar. The eggs of red caviar are larger than black caviar and usually very firm. Similar to a gelatin orb or flavor capsule, the red caviar eggs burst with an audible “pop” between the tongue and roof of your mouth, releasing the lightly flavorful juice which was once protected by the outer shell. However, the same factors that change the taste of the caviar can change the texture.
Q. How long does caviar last?
A. The amount of time before spoilage depends on how it was processed, whether it was pasteurized or not, if the product is opened or not and how it is being stored. A container of Non-pasteurized malossol caviar when unopened and properly refrigerated will last anywhere from two to four weeks. Once the container is opened it will only last about three days. If that same container of caviar is pasteurized or frozen, it can last a year as long as it remains sealed. The other types of processed caviar keep for significantly longer due to their higher salt content. Highly salted shelf stable roe can last many months without refrigeration.
Q. Why is caviar so expensive?
A. Caviar is indeed one of the most expensive delicacies in the world. However, some are far more affordable than others. The cost of a type of caviar is directly related to its rarity, along with the amount of time and resources required to produce it. Top dollar caviars from beluga, osetra and sevruga take many years, even decades to develop. Once at maturity the fish can either be milked or harvested for its roe. No matter how it is done, collecting the eggs requires considerable time and specialized care. Processing the eggs to meet the malossol model involves additional expertise and particular packaging after they are made into fine caviar. Of course, the most driving factor of a caviar’s price is its rarity. The more difficult it is to get the product, the more expensive it tends to be.
Q. Why is roe cheaper than caviar?
A. Caviar substitutes/salted fish roes cost significantly less than their sturgeon counterparts. This is because the non-sturgeon fish harvested for their eggs usually are far more populous and face less government regulation than sturgeon. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife places numerous restrictions and regulations on the fishing and farming of sturgeon, even banning the caviar from certain species entirely. Because sturgeons are more rare and precious, their eggs are considered far more valuable. Thus, with the high prices of the traditional caviars, the caviar substitutes have become abundant in the marketplace. There are many instances where fish roe requires fewer resources to produce than caviar. Certain types, such as lumpfish and capelin roe are cured with a higher salt content than caviar to make the product more shelf stable and to cut down on the costs associated with packaging and transportation.
Q. How is the quality of caviar graded? What factors change the rating?
A. Every collection of eggs from an individual fish is unique. The value and quality of the harvested eggs are scored at the time of production by a caviar expert, who judges the roe according to what is an expected norm from that species based on the grading guidelines. These guidelines rate caviar on a set of factors in which the scorer must answer a series of questions about the product.
Egg size: how do the grains of caviar compare to the typical egg size? Egg color: does the product have the usual color, a color that is off, or a certain color that signifies rarer and more mature caviar? Egg firmness: are the grains sturdy or soft, and do they have the appropriate texture? Is the roe skin or shell too fragile? Egg lucidity: do the eggs have the shiny coating that indicates freshness and proper storage. Egg uniformity: is the general appearance of the caviar appropriate? Are all the grains uniform with each other in terms of size, color, lucidity and firmness? Egg separation: Are the eggs clearly individual grains or are they soft, wet and seemingly melted together? Egg Fragrance: Does the product smell okay or does it have any off-putting and unnatural characteristics to its scent? Egg taste: Does the caviar have all the usual flavors of that species? Does it taste metallic, sour, bitter, and too salty or have any other flavors that negatively affect the quality? Egg maturity: do the eggs not only look like but taste like they were harvested from a full grown fish?
After all these factors are considered, the caviar is grouped into one of two grades. Grade 1 is reserved for caviar that not only satisfies the norm for the species but ideally combines all the factors stated above. In order to be grade 1 the eggs must be consistent in firm yet delicate texture and have large grains that are intact and unbroken, with fine color, smell and taste. Grade 2 has normal grain size with good color and taste but might not be as pleasing to the eye or palate as a Grade 1 product. Grade 2 caviar is usually lacking in one of the areas stated above, but not enough for it to be considered a bad product. If the product is scored as below grade 2, or is damaged, it is not given a rating and usually separated to make pressed or semi-preserved caviar.
Q. What’s the difference between classic, royal and imperial caviar?
A. These names are used by caviar producers to further grade their product, mostly based on their standards for the size and color of the caviar beads/grains. Grouping the caviar as classic, royal and imperial is most common for caviar companies that sell to retail customers, as it is more attractive sounding than grade 1 and 2. However, the two grading techniques do not follow the same guidelines or rate the product according to the same factors. The three grade method is not nearly as specific as the grade 1&2 method in determining how the product rates according to the nine factors above. Instead when separating the product as classic, royal and imperial, the scorer usually assesses that the product being graded is Grade 1 in terms of firmness, taste, fragrance, etc., and mostly just evaluates the color and egg size to get the grade. The lowest of the three grades is “Classic” and is given to product that meets the average egg color and bead size for caviar from that species. Some companies will say that classic correlates more directly to grade 2 product, but that is not always the case. There can be instances where a product is rated as classic for its darker or smaller eggs, yet has a better flavor than the higher grades. “Royal” is the next step up and will typically be lighter in color or have larger grains than “Classic” caviar. Since larger egg sizes signify that the product was from an older sturgeon and lighter egg colors are typically rarer, the price can increase significantly when moving from classic to royal and royal to imperial. The rarest and most expensive grade for a type of caviar is “Imperial” which is reserved for product with the largest eggs and lightest color. It is important to keep in mind that these grading methods are not an exact science and what qualifies as a certain grade of caviar for one company might not be the same for a different company.
Q. Is caviar nutritious or does it have any health benefits?
A. Yes, eating caviar can have numerous benefits to your health. One serving of caviar is packed full of protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamins A, B2, B6, B12, B44, C, and D. Caviar is also known to contain a variety of essential amino acids such as lysine, arginine, isoleucine, methionine and histidine. One tablespoon (15g) of caviar contains at least a gram of Omega-3 fatty acids along with large amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are known to support nervous system, immune system and circulatory system health. Due to these high amounts of Omega-3’s, caviar consumptions can be associated with preventing heart disease or reducing the risk of cardiac death and has also been linked to alleviating symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder. There is also evidence that regular consumption of fish products by pregnant women and women who may become pregnant plays a role in normal fetal brain and eye development. The only downside to the many benefits of eating caviar is the fact that it can be high in sodium and cholesterol. Therefore, eating fewer servings, or about 30 to 50 grams per person, is recommended.
Nutritional fact: 1 tablespoon of Caviar (15g)
Fat: 3g / 4% DV
Carbohydrates: 1g / 0% DV
Cholesterol: 94.1mg / 31%
Sodium: 240mg / 10% DV
Protein: 4g / 8% DV
Vitamin A: 146 IU / 3% DV
Calcium: 45mg / 4% DV
Vitamin D: 37 IU / 4% DV
Vitamin B12: 3.2mcg / 53% DV
Vitamin B2: 99 mcg / 6% DV
Vitamin B6: 65 mcg / 5% DV
Iron: 1.9 mg / 10% DV
Phosphorous: 58mg / 5% DV
Magnesium: 47mg / 12% DV
Potassium: 30mg / 0% DV
Selenium: 10.5mcg / 15% DV
DV Omega-3 fatty acids: 1.086 g
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