Caviar used to be reserved for the absolute top of society’s pyramid, but thankfully we’ve seen this delicacy become more affordable and accessible over time.
While connoisseurs and critics still pine after the enigmatic Beluga and Kaluga caviars of the East, there are Western alternatives to these pricey and rare products as well.
Most notably, Hackleback and Paddlefish have built reputations as the prime examples of American caviar, and they offer a satisfying experience in their own regard.
However, these two products are worth a closer look, especially since they’ve managed to earn the exclusive “caviar” nomenclature.
Can Hackleback and Paddlefish roe truly be considered caviar? What are the similarities and differences in these products, and what should you know as a buyer before putting down your money for a jar or tin?
Let’s do a deep dive on Hackleback and Paddlefish caviars and get to the truth.
HACKLEBACK CAVIAR EXPLAINED
When examining any type of caviar, there’s one crucial question we need to ask before all else: does this product come from a sturgeon or another type of fish?
Since Hackleback tends not to be listed among the world’s best-known, high-quality caviar varieties (think Beluga caviar, Kaluga caviar, and Sevruga caviar), it begs the question of its authenticity. As you might know, true caviar must come from the sturgeon and nothing else. While other fish roe such as salmon roe or trout roe may be called "salmon caviar" or "trout caviar," these fish eggs are not considered true caviar.
In this case, however, American Hackleback caviar does indeed make the cut as a genuine caviar product, originating from the Shovelnose Sturgeon species of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the Central United States.
Caviar lovers rejoice because Hackleback sturgeon roe is generally considered a legitimate type of caviar, with many of the same desirable characteristics you might find in the legendary Russian caviar varieties. That said, it’s not quite in the same class as the caviar that you find from the Russians.
Despite being one of the smallest sturgeons in the entire Acipenseridae family, the Shovelnose still grows to a considerable size when compared to other everyday species of fish.
It’s not unusual to find one of the southern “sand sturgeon” at over one meter in length and weighing over 10 pounds! They are known to swim along the bottom of channels against the current in search of insects, crustaceans, worms, and small fish.
And while the species is under threat like so many other sturgeon types, the Shovelnose is still going strong and commercially fished within the US.
The appearance, texture, and taste of the Hackleback caviar are impressive as well, drawing comparisons to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea classics.
The pearls have a signature black charcoal color, though usually much smaller in size than their medium-sized, high grade eastern counterparts. On the palate, the beads deliver a delightful burst of buttery flavor with slight sweetness and nuttiness.
Considering the wide availability and domestic production of Hackleback caviar, it’s one of the most popular roe products in the United States, with a strong international market as well.
If you’re interested in trying out Hackleback for yourself, keep your eyes open for products labeled “American Premium Black Caviar” or “Chattanooga Beluga.” Every company markets differently, so make sure you’re getting the real deal before you put money down.
PADDLEFISH: TRUE CAVIAR OR NOT?
The Shovelnose Sturgeon has earned its rightful place in the halls of true American caviar, but can Paddlefish do the same?
First things first: Paddlefish caviar does not originate from a species of sturgeon, which is, unfortunately, an instant disqualifier.
The Paddlefish is indeed considered a primitive fish and shows a clear evolutionary connection to the 27 species of sturgeon, but it instead belongs to the family Polyodontidae or basal Chondrostean ray-finned fish.
Paddlefish Through History
Without cracking a biology textbook, here’s what you need to know about the Paddlefish. It’s one of the largest freshwater fishes in North America (over five feet long and around 60 pounds), although its Chinese counterpart (likely extinct) grew even bigger.
At one point, Paddlefish could be found in abundance throughout the continental United States, from the basins of Texas and Missouri all the way north to Montana and Tennessee and east to New York.
Now that Paddlefish are under threat, regulations have been placed to prevent further overfishing. Still, the population is fairly robust, and the production of Paddlefish roe is still fully operational across the states.
The Paddlefish roe itself is certainly a price performer as a cousin to the real thing if you’re willing to sacrifice the experience of true caviar. The beads are small and crunchy with a steely grey exterior, making it an excellent choice for hosting large parties or experimenting with roe in the kitchen.
The taste of Paddlefish roe is not up to par, however, with Hackleback caviar or the elite caviars that typically take the spotlight. Rather than sweet and buttery, the flavors are more earthy and herbal.
Ounce for ounce, these flavors work well when paired with classic accouterments like blini or creme fraiche on toast but might not be deserving of a tasting's center stage. Save your mother of pearl spoon for your genuine malossol and ossetra scoops—or, of course, the sweet and nutty flavor of Hackleback caviar.
In other words, Paddlefish roe is a passable alternative for Hackleback, but compare them side by side, and you’ll see the differences as clear as night and day.
THE “BIG FIVE” CAVIAR PREVAIL
Hackleback and Paddlefish caviar have definitely earned their place in the American caviar hall of fame, but they simply don’t hold a candle to the top caviars of the world, better known as the “Big Five.”
Beluga, Kaluga, Osetra, and Sevruga sturgeon are still the all-stars of caviar across the world, and the quality and price points have reflected this for decades. The Pacific White Sturgeon of the American northwest also breaks the top-five varieties but should not be confused with Hackleback or Paddlefish.
The Top-Tier Fish
What exactly sets these top-tier caviars apart from the rest? For starters, they come from larger, fiercer, and rarer types of sturgeon. Fish like Beluga and Kaluga are massive animals that take many years to mature and yield quality roe, while Hackleback and Paddlefish are considered much easier to facilitate in terms of production.
There are also clear differences in the size, texture, taste, and overall quality of these elite caviar types when matched up with the lesser American varieties. Kaluga Hybrid Reserve caviar, for example, boasts large amber beads with a firm texture and an amazing spectrum of bold flavors.
Hackleback and Paddlefish serve their purpose in terms of price and quantity, but the Big Five caviars are in a completely different league in every category.
Think of it this way. If you have a premium Beluga or Kaluga caviar in your refrigerator ready to serve, it’s something worthy of a celebration. You might invite a group of close friends or colleagues over to your place, pop some Champagne, and serve the caviar in a traditional setting with ice, lemon, and mother-of-pearl spoons with minimal distractions.
Alternatively, Hackleback or Paddlefish caviar doesn’t really warrant the hype. They offer far less in terms of flavor complexity and are better suited for experimentation with various starches, sauces, and other snacks as part of a larger spread.
Recognize the differences between these various caviars, and you’ll know which types are worth the extra attention.
SOURCING AND SHIPPING PREMIUM CAVIAR
Stroll through any upscale market or specialty food store in the United States, and you’ll likely see affordable Hackleback and Paddlefish caviar readily available for purchase.
Premium caviar like Sevruga caviar or authentic Royal Osetra caviar, on the other hand, should be ordered from a reputable online distributor that sources directly from eco-friendly sustainable farms.
This way, you’re sure to get the freshest, most flavorful caviar available at the best possible price shipped right to your door. Plan your next party now, because that’s something worth celebrating.