Caviar, considered by many to be the ultimate hors d'oeuvre, is the salted roe (eggs) of the sturgeon fish.
The sturgeon has been regarded as a luxury since the time immemorial and lives in the Caspian Sea and the Volga Basin. Its meat is delicate yet firm and contains virtually no bones, the fillets are rather large and the taste exquisite. In fact the sturgeon is not only highly regarded for its legendary caviar roe, but above all for its delicious meat, which can be prepared in many different ways.
Only sturgeon roe can be labelled simply "caviar." Roe from other fish must be qualified as such on the label (for example, salmon caviar or lumpfish caviar).
Most of the world's caviar comes from sturgeon harvested in the Caspian Sea and imported from Russia and Iran. Imported sturgeon caviar, classified according to the sturgeon species and the roe's size and colour, includes Beluga, Osetr and Sevruga as well as Pressed Caviar.
This giant amongst sturgeon, also respectfully known among fishermen as the "elephant fish," is up to 30 feet (900cm) and can weigh up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms), and the roe can account for up to 15% of its bodyweight.
Beluga caviar is the most expensive, and the light gray and well-separated eggs are the largest
(3-4 mm) and most fragile kind.
This is a migratory fish, which spawns in the spring in rivers, and can weigh up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms).
Osetr caviar is considered by some connoisseurs to be the best. The eggs are medium-sized (3 mm), golden yellow to brown and quite oily with a nutty flavour.
Sevruga can be up to 6.5 feet (200 cm), it can weigh up to 175 pounds (80 kilogram). It is found in the Caspian and the Black Sea, although it has also occasionally been sighted in the Adriatic and in the Danube as far as Bratislava.
Sevruga caviar is the smallest in grain with diameter of 2-2.5 mm, and the strongest flavour among all varieties of caviar.
Processed caviar is made from osetra and sevruga roes. The eggs are cleaned, packed in linen bags and hung to drain; as salt and moisture drain away, the natural shape of the eggs is destroyed and the eggs are pressed together. Approximately 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms) of roe produce only 1 pound (450 grams) of pressed caviar; pressed caviar has a spreadable, jam like consistency.
Most of the caviar consumed in this country, however, comes from either domestic sturgeon or other fish and is labelled as sturgeon caviar, golden whitefish caviar, lumpfish caviar or salmon caviar.
American sturgeon caviar
Is not considered to be of the same quality as Russian or Iranian caviars; nevertheless, roe from sturgeon harvested in the coastal waters of the American northwest and the Tennessee River is becoming increasingly popular, due in part to its relatively low price.
Golden whitefish caviar
Is a small and very crisp roe; it is a natural golden colour and comes from whitefish native to the northern Great Lakes.
Is readily available and reasonably priced; it is produced from lumpfish harvested in the North Atlantic. The small and very crisp eggs are dyed black, red or gold; the food colouring is not stable, however and when used on garnish foods, coloured lumpfish caviar tends to bleed.
The eggs of the chum and silver salmon are a very popular garnish. The eggs are large with a good flavour and natural orange colour.
Purchasing and Storing Caviar
Although all caviar is processed with salt, some caviar is labelled malassol, which means "little salt." Caviar should smell fresh, with no off odours. The eggs should be whole, not broken, and they should be crisp and pop when pressed with the tongue. Excessive oiliness may be caused by a large number of broken eggs. The best way to test caviar's quality is to taste it. Remember, price alone does not necessarily indicate quality.
Most caviar can be purchased fresh or pasteurized in tins or jars ranging from 1 ounce (28 grams) to more than 4 pounds (2 kilograms). Some caviars are also available frozen. (Frozen caviar should be used only as a garnish and should not be served by itself.) In order to ensure the freshest possible product, always purchase caviar in small quantities as often as possible based on your needs.
Fresh caviar should be stored at 32ºF (0ºC). Because most refrigerators are considerably warmer than that, store the caviar on ice in the coldest part of the refrigerator and change the ice often. If properly handled, fresh caviar will last one to two weeks before opening and several days after opening. Pasteurized caviar does not require refrigeration until it is opened and will last several days in the refrigerator after opening.
Fine caviar should be served in its original container or a non-metal bowl on a bed of crushed ice, accompanied only by lightly buttered toasts or blinis and sour cream. Connoisseurs prefer china, bone or other non-metal utensils for serving caviar because metal reacts with the caviar, producing off flavours.
Lesser-quality caviars are often served on ice, accompanies by minced onion, chopped hard-cooked egg whites and yolks (separately), lemon, sour cream and buttered toasts.
Lumpfish and other non-sturgeon caviars are usually not served by themselves. Rather, they are used as ingredients in garnishes for other dishes.