The world of caviar is expansive, with a rich history involving culture, economics, and biology.
With dozens of types of caviar to choose from in the modern marketplace, it can be easy to get overwhelmed with your options, so it’s smart to get a lay of the land before buying.
Whether you’re brand new to caviar or have already tried some classics, it never hurts to get more information about this amazing delicacy.
Let’s explore the most common types of caviar, look into some more affordable alternatives, and offer a few tips that will help you navigate this complex and exciting food.
THE BIG FIVE CAVIAR TYPES
The classic concept of caviar is simply defined as cured, female sturgeon roe, and for the purists out there, this generally refers to five main types of fish from the same family.
Other types of fish eggs like flying fish roe, salmon roe, "capelin caviar," whitefish roe, or tobiko may be delicious, but they are not considered caviar.
Here are the “big five” sturgeon caviars you should be familiar with:
Regarded as the finest, most prestigious caviar in the world, it’s currently impossible to (legally) obtain beluga pearls in the United States. The fish must be sourced from specific regions in the Amur River or the Caspian Sea, where overfishing has left little behind. Kaluga caviar is said to have a similar taste, but this "river Beluga" lacks the prestige of its sought-after peer.
This caviar has been the definitive, traditional choice for elites and royalty in centuries past, offering big grey beads, a smooth, buttery texture, and an exquisite clean finish.
Known for its firm, glistening pearls of amber, brown, jade, and gold, ossetra caviar is widely considered to be second-in-command in terms of caviar prestige behind beluga. The long, buttery finish and nutty flavor are sought after by caviar connoisseurs worldwide.
Genuine Russian osetra caviar is available in the United States, but expect to sit on a waiting list and pay a high price per ounce.
If you are craving that authentic beluga caviar flavor and feel, the freshwater Kaluga sturgeon offers a great way to obtain quality pearls without jumping into the black market. Expect a slightly saltier taste but a smooth texture that ranks among the best in the world.
Some of the best boutique caviars are produced from Kaluga sturgeons bred with more common fish to produce different flavors and offer better prices for customers.
True sevruga caviar combines sevruga caviar, sterlet caviar, and Siberian sturgeon caviar, meaning it is difficult to obtain in its purest form. Many imitations exist, so be sure to read your labels carefully and read up about supply chains.
If you have the fortune of tasting the real thing, sevruga caviar is a delight, with small, delicate beads and a long, buttery finish.
Caviar has a reputation as an international fixture, but many fantastic products are available from fish right here in North America. American White sturgeon can be found at affordable prices and has a flavor reminiscent of the best caviars from the east. Hackleback caviar comes from the Missouri River and Mississippi River, and white sturgeon caviar is sourced from California.
For newcomers to the caviar scene, this is a great choice considering the price and widespread availability. Plus, producers in the States rely on advanced aquaculture practices to ensure sustainable farming for the long term.
COMMON CATEGORIES AND LABELS
One of the pitfalls of caviar’s popularity is the danger of being misled by labels. While some countries have stricter regulations than others about how packages are labeled, the standards are not universal, and if you aren’t experienced, it’s easy to be duped by elegant packaging and fancy-sounding words.
Here’s the truth: terms like Reserve, Special Reserve, Royal, and Gold Standard don’t really have any objective meaning in terms of quality. Most of the time, they are simply marketing terms used to differentiate between select varieties of the same species.
Instead of interpreting these labels on a surface level, it’s important to figure out how each company markets its products and determine quality based on real factors like sourcing, farming practices, and quality grading. This will save you time in the long run and keep you from being led astray.
For each type of sturgeon, there are only two grades of caviar that deserve your attention. Grade 1 caviar is the best, featuring large, firm, fully-intact eggs with the best color and quality. Grade 2 caviar does not have the same perfect form and may contain some broken eggs and color variation. It is still delicious, however, and certainly worth your time.
The other term to look for is malossol, which indicates a low salt content (under 3 percent) in the caviar. With less salt added in the curing process, you get more of the natural flavors of the eggs and can expect higher quality overall.
Pasteurized and pressed caviar products are also widely available for affordable prices, but these typically contain more salt and don’t give you the authentic, fresh taste that you want from high-quality caviar.
The top-tier caviars discussed earlier can be hard to find and cost-prohibitive for many of us, which is why caviar alternatives are such a great option for entry-level customers.
Here are a few of the best fish roes that feature tastes and textures reminiscent of fine caviar without forcing you to dig into the savings account.
Wild-caught in the rivers of the Southern United States, bowfin is a bony fish that produces tiny black pearls, acting as an excellent substitute to pricer caviar products. You’ll likely see bowfin caviar used as garnishes on restaurant menus throughout the world.
Treat this product just as you would any other caviar, and do not mix it with hot dishes. It is best used to entertain larger crowds on bite-sized appetizers like blinis and buttered toast points.
Technically considered caviar, this wild-caught fish yields delicate, crunchy pearls that will satisfy the curious palettes out there for a very reasonable price. The eggs are rich, charcoal-black in color, and offer a distinctively sweet and smooth flavor.
Read those labels closely to make sure you’re buying authentic hackleback from shovelnose sturgeon.
If you seek an earthy, herbal flavor from your fish roe and crave that explosive texture, paddlefish is your best bet for the price. Steely grey beads are firm and can be bought in bulk to make everyone at the party feel like a star.
Since it resembles sevruga caviar, you may find this product incorrectly labeled, so do your research and don’t pay more than you should. Read up on a few different varieties of paddlefish caviar before you make a purchase online.
Although it’s not the most prestigious type of roe on the market, it’s hard to think of a better starting point than capelin roe. The fish is common across the northern hemisphere, meaning you can buy a lot for a fair price and share it without worry.
You’ve probably enjoyed these tiny, crunchy beads on sushi before, so why not bring it home and experiment with some different dishes?
Salmon and Trout Roe
For some folks, big and juicy bursts of flavor are the most important factor when enjoying fish roe, and both salmon and trout deliver on this front without breaking the bank.
Bold orange colors and bright flavors are to be expected from these products, and you can spend a bit more to experience roes with even more variation and nuance.
The Everyday Miracle
With so many hybrids and unique variants available, your caviar journey is never-ending, and that’s a good thing!
Now that you have all the basic information you need to know, you can confidently buy and sample new caviars and roes from across the world.