Seafood has been a dietary staple for thousands of years, allowing civilizations to blossom and sustain the growing global population into the 21st century.
Finfish, shellfish, and even ocean-dwelling microorganisms have a variety of culinary applications, but we often forget about an important piece of the seafood puzzle: fish roe!
While fish roe has a high-profile reputation in the west, it has been a longstanding part of culinary culture in many other areas of the world. Only recently has the food been in the spotlight in the United States and Canada as a viable daily ingredient, and it’s far more affordable than you may think.
Still, many questions remain unanswered on the subject. What is the real definition of fish roe? How is it different from caviar, if at all? What are some tasty and price-effective products to try when getting started? Let’s clear up some of the confusion surrounding fish roe, and offer some guidance for those who are brand new to the idea.
Fish Roe Defined
Before we dive into the details of fish roe and its varieties, let’s define the ingredient in its most basic terms. Any fully ripe, unfertilized fish eggs fall into the category of roe, meaning that any species and variety of fish can produce roe.
You will often see roe divided into two main categories – hard and soft. Hard roe comes from female fish and is far more common, but soft roe from the reproductive organs of male fish can also be found in some settings.
It isn’t just finfish that produce roe, either. Shellfish like lobsters and crabs also produce eggs that can be safely prepared and served, often referred to as coral due to their bright colors.
Not all roe is suitable for human consumption, but there are more varieties than you may think, and various preparations make this product desirable for culinary use.
Most roe can safely be eaten fresh, requiring no added ingredients or processing by human hands. Other roe products are slightly cooked or pasteurized to extend the shelf life of the eggs and allow them to sit on shelves in cans or jars in warehouses and markets.
However, the majority of roe is lightly salted, a process which improves the flavor and texture of the roe while making it slightly less perishable. Most roe found in stores will have a bit of salt added, and the level of salt content should be made visible on the label.
Think of roe like any other organic product from the earth. It’s always best in its purest, unadulterated form, but processing and preservation makes it easier to attain and last longer.
Once you realize how much roe is on the market, you’ll start seeing it more often and realize it was right under your nose all along!
If you ever find yourself wondering whether you’ve got a true roe or not, remember that the definition is quite broad, and this mental checklist will help you determine the authenticity of a product on the fly.
Different From Caviar?
Even veteran gourmets sometimes get confused when differentiating roe from caviar, and it’s easy to understand why. The two terms are often used interchangeably in restaurants, shops, and writing, though there are some key differences to keep in mind.
Here’s the golden rule to never forget: all caviar is roe, but not all roe is caviar.
The reason is due to the specific fish from which caviar must be harvested – the sturgeon belonging to the family Acipenseridae. Without getting too deep into scientific classifications, just know that there are 27 species of fish within this category, and each of them produce roe that earns the prestigious title of true caviar.
While some of these sturgeon species have gone extinct over time from overfishing, many populations are alive and well thanks to regulations and advanced aquaculture methods employed by farmers and producers worldwide.
Still, caviar production is a costly, time-consuming, and labor-intensive process demanding patience and skill, which explains why the price of true caviar remains higher than all other forms of fish roe.
The “Big Five” caviar types include Beluga, Osetra, Kaluga, Sevruga, and American, each with distinct flavor and texture profiles and unique visual characteristics. While Beluga and Osetra fetch the highest prices per ounce, it’s hard to find authentic caviar that could be considered cheap by most standards.
If you are presented with caviar at a dinner party or formal gathering, don’t ask the host directly if the eggs are from genuine sturgeon! Instead, look for those signature grey, black, and bronze pearls that signify authentic caviar, and take a peek at the label if possible.
Types of Fish Roe to Know
Commercial-grade fish roe products do cost less than caviar, but it’s a completely different experience. If you truly love caviar, this isn’t even going to come close.
For those who are brand new to the world of roe, here are a few varieties to fill your cart and inspire your palate:
Salmon and Trout Roe
If you want a roe that pops with color on the plate and bursts with flavor in each bite, salmon and trout offer a very affordable starting point. Most upscale markets in the US offer these products in the seafood section, so they’re not too hard to find.
Capelin is known for packing a crunch with tons of tiny beads in every scoop. The texture is on the other end of the spectrum from salmon roe and makes for great contrast at a tasting.
You’ll pay a bit more for quality American paddlefish, but it will bring you larger beads and more delicate flavors.
Perfect for serving large crowds and scooping on light pasta dishes, bowfin can be procured in bulk and satisfies with a signature crunch. This is your chance to get creative with fun appetizers and bite-size snacks for friends and family.
Nutrition Facts and Benefits
It would be a crime to overlook the nutritional benefits of fish roe (and, by extension, caviar) in a world obsessed with health hacks and superfoods. There are few natural ingredients on the planet with a nutrition panel as diverse and impressive as fish roe.
Fish roe of all types are high in protein, healthy fats, and contain tons of quality vitamins and minerals. The star of the show is Omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their amazing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Fish roe is also completely gluten free, containing zero carbs, and is perfect for the Keto and Paleo lifestyle diets.
Eating just a scoop of fish roe each day can work wonders for cardiovascular health and protect vital organs from oxidation and disease. If any ingredient earned the title of “superfood,” fish roe would be it!
Hopefully, we have demystified the secrets of fish roe and given you more than enough knowledge to navigate this new world. Enjoy fish roe of all varieties and find your favorite caviar to celebrate with friends and loved ones.