Some of the most beloved ingredients in the world are also widely misunderstood. Roe and caviar are two foods that we tend to hear in the same sentence, and you might even see the terms used interchangeably in some settings.
The truth about roe and caviar isn’t so simple, so it’s not surprising to see people get mixed up on the topic. We’re here to explore the true meaning of the terms, discuss how they overlap, and point out key differences that make them unique in their own right.
What Is Roe?
Let’s begin with the broadest definition of the bunch: roe. Almost every marine animal is capable of producing roe, from finfish to shellfish and many species in between. With such a huge variety of sea life out there, you can find roe of all types, generally in the form of the unfertilized internal egg masses of the female’s ovaries.
Alternatively, some roes are produced by the male of the animal species, although these products are less common in general. There are also no rules about salting, curing, or processing roe in any way. Roe can be in its natural form or be subject to additives and extras – it’s still considered roe and should be labeled as such.
If you find yourself wondering whether you’ve got a hold of roe or some other ingredient, you should be able to determine the truth without much digging.
Main Types of Roe
We narrow things down when talking about the most common and popular types of roe, which are generally from finfish like trout, salmon, and other species that tend to dwell in fresh or brackish water (opposed to the deep sea or ocean).
The roe we see in stores is often affordable and accessible, with common characteristics such as bright orange color and firm beads that offer that distinctive “pop” sensation in the mouth. Some roe is slightly more processed, typically with salt, to add a bit of flavor and boost shelf life.
How Caviar Is Different
Fish roe is distinct from roe in a general sense, and caviar narrows things down even further. Caviar is defined as the salted roe of the female sturgeon, an ancient family of fish with 27 different species.
Since sturgeon take a long time to mature (sometimes over ten years) and have long been overfished, caviar has earned a reputation as a highly exclusive and desirable ingredient – not to mention it’s delicious and has a true “superfood” nutrition profile.
There’s also the harvesting and curing process, which is no simple feat either. It takes a high degree of skill and experience to extract sturgeon roe intact to create a top-grade caviar product, and curing is difficult in its own right.
These are the key factors that set caviar apart from roe. From the rarity and splendor of the sturgeon species itself to the arduous process of harvesting and processing the final product, you can get an idea of why caviar is treated with such reverence in the culinary world.
Of course, things get a bit foggy when it comes to labels, so you need to keep an eye out for misleading words and phrases, especially in the United States, where the FDA plays a bit loose with labeling standards.
For instance, you may find the roe of paddlefish or bowfin in stores with an appealing cursive “caviar” label, but don’t be fooled – these are fish that may share some similarities to the sturgeon but simply aren’t in the same league.
In Europe, on the other hand, you tend to find more accurate descriptions on product labels with stricter regulations. To be labeled caviar in a country like France or Spain, it better be the real deal, because they take it seriously!
Eating Caviar vs. Roe
As far as texture and taste go, caviar is on a different level entirely from standard fish roe of salmon or trout. Roe is known for one-dimensional flavors and not much depth, which is why it’s usually used as a topping on sushi or an ingredient in a more complex dish.
Some are salty, some are semi-sweet, and you won’t get much beyond that. In many cases, fish roe has a neutral taste and is added simply for a contrast in texture.
Caviar is known for having deep and varied flavor profiles compared to normal fish roe, and connoisseurs take pride in exploring the complexities of each caviar variety.
That’s why you see caviar served with minimal accouterments and a clean, cleansing beverage like dry sparkling wine or ice-cold vodka. You don’t want other flavors to overwhelm your caviar experience or distort your palate when scooping quality caviar.
Lemon, capers, crème fraiche, and maybe a simple starch like blinis or saltines are usually what you’ll find served along with the best caviar – not much else. It’s also recommended that you try a bite of caviar on its own before adding more flavors and textures.
There’s also an art to eating caviar that doesn’t apply to standard roe. Your goal is to avoid chewing on the caviar, but rather take very small scoops and run your tongue over the individual beads and allow them to reveal their unique flavors and textures. Look for notes of earthiness, nuttiness, butter, and even smoke.
Expect a lot of variety from one caviar to the next, compared to standard roe, which is fairly uniform in every iteration.
Not only are there several types of sturgeon that each produce eggs with unique characteristics, but every single batch of caviar also has distinctive features based on a huge range of variables.
From the location of the sturgeon and the aquaculture practices used by the producers to the age of the fish and even the season or harvest, these all have an impact on the size, color, shape, and taste of the final product.
Storage and Buying Tips
When it comes to storing caviar and fish roe, there are a few more differences to note. Fish roe, from salmon, for example, is perishable indeed, but slightly more durable than caviar in terms of shelf life and its ability to withstand certain conditions.
You can get away with storing standard roe in the freezer, for instance, while you don’t want your caviar to ever become frozen. Instead, keep the caviar in a cold area of the refrigerator, just around freezing point for optimal storage.
If you’re curious about buying fish roe, it’s worth exploring your local markets to find some different products available for a good price.
When buying caviar, however, you’ll want to turn to a reputable online distributor that will secure a top-quality product and ensure timely delivery of fresh caviar to your door. This will save you time, hassle, and a better price as well.
Be sure to do your research and read up on FAQ pages to learn as much as you can about shipping, service, and other factors that can make or break your caviar buying experience. Buy from the best to make the process quick and easy.
Roe and caviar have some basic similarities, but the differences are drastic. Keep this guide in mind as you look around for your next tin or jar. Once you experience caviar in all its glory, you’ll see why it deserves the luxury reputation.