Nothing says class like caviar, right? But there’s a lot to know about those little fish eggs before serving to your guests over ice with crackers.
First and foremost…what is caviar? Well, to be blunt, fish eggs. Caviar is the sieved and salted roe (eggs) of fish. However, “True” caviar, and therefore the only variety which is referred to by that name alone, comes from sturgeon. The most sought-after varieties are found in the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Russia and Iran. They include Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga. Each of these terms refers to the variety of sturgeon from which the caviar came, not the grade of caviar itself. Contrary to popular belief, the price of caviar is not necessarily determined by its quality, but rather by its rarity in relation to other varieties.
Beluga is known for its soft, relatively large eggs (berries), which can range in color from a pale silver-gray to black. Typically, the lighter the caviar, the more desirable. Very light caviar is designated by “000,” medium color is “00” and dark caviar is marked “0.” However, with Beluga caviar, there should be no noticeable difference in flavor, which is often described as “buttery.”
Beluga is the largest of all the Caspian sturgeon. They can grow up to six meters (20 feet) in length and have been known to weigh as much as 600 kgs or more and live for over 100 years. A Beluga sturgeon’s eggs can account for as much as 25 percent of its body weight, with some rare fish carrying almost 50 percent of its body weight in eggs. Though 250 kgs of roe can be harvested from a single fish, less than 100 kgs are harvested each year, making Beluga the most expensive caviar on the market.
Osetra is a medium-sized sturgeon, which grows to about two meters (six feet) and often weighs about 200 kgs. Osetra is unique in that its medium-sized eggs can vary significantly in color – ranging from dark gray to dark brown and including shades of amber. Its flavor is generally described as “nutty,” but unlike Beluga, the flavor can have subtle variations.
Sevruga is the smallest of the commercially harvested Caspian sturgeon. They grow to an average 1.5 meters (five feet) and rarely exceed 25 kgs. They produce their small eggs much earlier than other sturgeon, and these eggs can account for as much as 10 to 12 percent of body weight. Sevruga produces the least expensive caviar because it’s found in far greater numbers. The tiny eggs are gray to black and have the “briniest” flavor of the three.
Caviars can be purchased in four types. The preferred type is “Malossol,” or the low-salt variety. Other types include “Salted” (or Semi-Preserved) caviar, “Pressed” caviar (which is usually made from eggs with imperfect berries) or Pasteurized caviar, which is partially cooked and very different in texture.
Caviar is extremely perishable and must be kept very cold. The ideal temperature is between 28˚F and 32˚F. Freezing the roe will cause the berries to burst, so salt is added to prevent bursting and aid preservation. Malossol caviar will last two to four weeks in the coldest part of the refrigerator, but should be kept on ice.
When serving caviar, it should be served in the original container, as transferring the caviar could damage the berries. Remove the caviar from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before serving and place it atop ice, allowing the temperature to come up a few degrees (to 36˚F to 40˚F) and the flavors to bloom. Traditional accoutrements include plain toast points or blinis, chopped egg white, egg yolk, minced onion, crème fraiche and lemon. True connoisseurs ignore all the trimmings and eat it straight off the spoon, which by the way, can be metal…just not silver.