What Is Caviar? Origins, Types and Production

You cast the line and just as the lure slaps the water’s surface, something snaps at the bait. Soon you’ve landed a female fish, ripe with fish eggs. Voila! Break out the toast triangles: You’ve got caviar, the A-list appetizer.

But what is caviar, exactly? While the unfertilized eggs of nearly any female fish can be separated from their egg sacks, washed, salted and eaten, true caviar, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration rulings, comes from sturgeon only.

Advertisement

And, as connoisseurs the world over will attest, the delicacy is a sought-after, often expensive and frequently controversial commodity seasoned with mystique — making sturgeon eggs more than the mere sum of their parts.

What’s So Special About Caviar?

Given that caviar is, at its most basic, simply the eggs of a fish, it’s somewhat surprising this roe has risen to royalty status. In some parts of the world, caviar is currency. In others, it is a status symbol revered for its texture and taste.

Globally, the legal caviar trade prompts an estimated $100 million to change hands annually; illegal trade increases that number tenfold [source: CITES]. Today, the United States consumes the lion’s share — about 60 percent — of beluga caviar, the priciest variety produced by a prehistoric-looking fish headed for extinction [source: Pew Trusts].

Advertisement

However beloved by gourmands, the subtle variances of caviar are often misunderstood. The size and flavor of caviar is as distinct as the fish from which it comes, and as diverse as the methods used to preserve and store the fragile orbs. Saying, “I like caviar,” is like saying, “I like every flavor of jelly beans.”

What Kinds of Fish Make Caviar?

The sturgeon, a lumbering, toothless fish with a decidedly prehistoric appearance, produces eggs that people harvest for caviar.

The sturgeon is sometimes called a “living fossil” because of its few adaptations through the millennia. The Acipenser family tree includes 27 sturgeon, although genetic markers have scientists disputing the exact number of distinct species.

Advertisement

Some sturgeon, like the beluga, live a century or more and continue to grow. In fact, one beluga reached a record 4,500 pounds (2,041 kg) and 28 feet (8.5 meters) long, which is about the size of a motorhome.

Caviar comes from the eggs of each species of sturgeon, except the largely poisonous green sturgeon. However, only three sturgeon species — the beluga, osetra and sevruga — supply most of the world’s caviar.

These species live in the Caspian Sea, bordered by five nations including Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia. Other bodies of water producing significant amounts of caviar include the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.

Sturgeon Habitats and Migratory Patterns

Sturgeon are anadromous, which means they can live in both salt and fresh water. They prefer, however, to keep one fin in both worlds. Most live in tidal estuaries where salt and fresh waters collide, then swim in rivers to spawn.

Sturgeon annually return to the same place to lay their eggs, and their predictable swim makes them easy targets. When caught, most sturgeon won’t fight; they’re simply resigned to their fate.

Advertisement

The Caviar Crisis: Overfishing and Its Consequences

Caviar’s premium price, coupled with demand, makes the sturgeon attractive to legal fisheries and poachers alike. Decades of overfishing mean fewer mature fish and scant opportunities to reproduce. This cycle is evident in the Caspian Sea’s dwindling beluga population, which has dropped more than 90 percent [source: Science Daily].

Within the last 10 years, a number of efforts have attempted to assuage the sturgeon’s collapse. The United States banned imported beluga sturgeon caviar and placed the beluga sturgeon on the its endangered species list.

Advertisement

The international coalitions also pushed for stringently reduced fishing quotas. Few measures, however, held up to the continued demand for caviar.

As the caviar trifecta — beluga, osetra and sevruga — becomes a scarcity, other sources of fish roe become more acceptable.

It’s important to note, however, that caviar made from any other type of fish, such as salmon, is not considered “true” caviar and must contain the species identifier in its name. For example, a tin containing salmon roe must read “salmon caviar,” not just “caviar.”

Farming Caviar

To combat the declining numbers of wild-caught sturgeon, a number of farms in the United States are growing a new crop: caviar.

For this new breed of farmers bent not on agriculture, but on aquaculture, patience has certainly been a virtue. It takes about 15 years for a sturgeon to become mature enough to harvest its eggs, so many farms are only now making their products available.

Not only are these farming methods environmentally sustainable, but they’re also good for the fish, too. Rather than killing the females to remove the roe, many farmers “milk” the fish and leave them alive to reproduce again.

Advertisement

How Is Caviar Harvested, Processed and Stored?

When it comes to caviar, timing is everything. Three days before a female sturgeon is ready to spawn, her eggs are taut and flavorful. Taken too early, the eggs are gooey with fat and won’t offer a trademark “pop” when eaten. Taken too late, and they’ll be a milky, mushy mess.

It seems harvesters pluck the freshest caviar from a live fish, so they often stun sturgeon with a bonk to the head and then slit them open while still alive. After removing the ovaries, harvesters empty them of their contents.

Advertisement

Although the process of harvesting roe may seem cruel, there’s been no major public outcry over its practice.

Manual Processing for Quality Assurance

Harvesting eggs is a delicate process often done manually because roe is fragile and easily damaged. Harvesters open the roe sacks, or ovaries, and rub them across mesh screens using gentle pressure from the palm of the hand.

This action separates the eggs from the membrane, allowing them to drop through the screen into a shallow tub. The eggs are then rinsed with cold water and salted.

After several hours, harvesters drain the resulting brine and pack the roe, which is now caviar, in containers with airtight lids. Fresh caviar will keep for two to four weeks.

Understanding Caviar Preservation

The term for lightly salted caviar is “malossol,” and it has a salt content of less than 5 percent. Most modern malossol caviars, however, contain less than 3 percent salt.

Caviar with a salt content up to 8 percent is aptly named “salted caviar” or “semi-preserved caviar.” Although still fresh, this caviar sacrifices taste for longer shelf life.

Lesser grades of caviar with up to 10 percent salt are compressed into jam-like cakes with concentrated flavor, called “payusnaya,” that will keep for three months.

Some fresh caviar is pasteurized. To do so, small vacuum-packed jars of caviar are immersed in hot water for several minutes. Pasteurization decreases the risks of encountering a food-borne pathogen, such as Listeria, which can be especially harmful to pregnant women. It also creates a shelf-stable product that can withstand a year of unrefrigerated storage and shipment.

However, shippers must keep fresh, unpasteurized caviar at a constant, chilled temperature during transportation. Being a high-maintenance delicacy, they must also give caviar frequent attention during transport, turning it often to ensure the fat evenly coats each egg.

From Sweets to Skin Creams, Caviar Turns Up in Unusual Places

Caviar is showing up as an ingredient in some unusual places — like sorbet. Philippe Faur, a French company known for its cold and creamy confections, has created a sorbet that contains 60 percent caviar and ships it nearly anywhere in the world.

Caviar is also making an appearance in facial creams; the touted benefits of caviar-laced creams include lightening and firming of the skin.

Advertisement

Caviar Varieties

Caviar holds a fascination for gourmands in large part because of the subtle variances in types of caviar. Like grapes used in wine making, many factors influence the essence of caviar as the eggs ripen.

The beluga sturgeon, large and increasingly rare, produces large caviar that is light to dark gray in color. The buttery taste is less intense than fine-grained caviar, and the coarse row offers a delicate texture.

Advertisement

In contrast, the eggs of the small sevruga sturgeon are blackish green with a concentrated flavor. The medium-sized osetra sturgeon produces caviar that is deeply golden to dark brown in color and features a nutty taste.

Grading and Criteria for Caviar Quality

For each type of sturgeon roe, there are two grades of caviar. Grade 1 caviar features firm, large, intact eggs, delicately taut with fine color and flavor. Grade 2 caviar is still good, and most would be happy to sample it; however, it’s simply not as beautiful to the eye or pleasing to the palate as Grade 1.

Additionally, beluga caviar classified as “000” indicates it has a silver or light gray color, while “00” means medium gray and “0” is gray. We traditionally prize light colors more than dark colors, but the caviar taste is essentially the same in this sphere.

People don’t consider damaged roe as suitable for grading, but they can still eat this milky mixture. Manufacturers heat it, place it in fabric pouches, and press it to remove excess moisture, salt and oil. This pressed caviar has four times the roe of fresh caviar per ounce and offers a deeply intense flavor.

Rare and Sought-after Caviar Types

Although beluga caviar is the most sought-after, costing about $400 for two ounces, it isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of the caviar-lover’s quest.

The rarest and therefore most expensive caviar is golden caviar. Also known as “royal caviar” it is thought to be eggs that would produce albino osetra. Only one in 1,000 osetra sturgeon produce this caviar, which is a pale daffodil color.

Russian and Iranian caviar is popular the world over, but wild-caught American caviar — from the Atlantic sturgeon and white sturgeon — is gaining a foothold in the global caviar trade.

Vegetarian and Kosher Caviar Substitutes

Vegetarian caviar isn’t really caviar at all — it’s made from seaweed, then flavored and colored to look and taste like caviar.

Some vegetarian caviar, such as Canadian-manufactured Kelp Caviar, is free of cholesterol and calories. Plus, vegetarian caviar is far less expensive than the real deal — it costs just pennies per ounce, compared with the hundreds of dollars fetched by an ounce of beluga caviar.

Because caviar does not come from a fish with scales, it is not a kosher food. However, roe that comes from a scaled fish — although not “true” caviar — can be used as a caviar substitute, such as the eggs of salmon or whitefish.

Advertisement

Serving and Handling Caviar

Caviar, for those who can hold their appetites in check, is a delicate enjoyment meant more for the palate than the stomach. It’s considered poor manners to eat more than just a couple of spoonfuls in the company of others.

Caviar Nutrition

Fortunately, when it comes to nutritional content, there’s a lot packed into each bite — just one spoonful of caviar will supply your daily requirement of Vitamin B12.

Advertisement

Caviar also is a high-protein food with less than three grams fat in each tablespoon. It’s an excellent source of amino acids, omega-3s, vitamin D, iron, magnesium and selenium.

However, caviar is high in both sodium and cholesterol, and, there are foodborne illness risks inherent with consuming raw foods. Pregnant women in particular should avoid eating caviar that isn’t pasteurized because of the pathogen Listeria.

Presentation and Serving Techniques

Whether pasteurized or fresh, caviar should be chilled when served.

For those who like to supplement their caviar with traditional savoir-faire, caviar should be oh-so-carefully ladled into a small dish nestled on a bed of crushed ice. If the caviar’s brand is brag-worthy, its lid — with the name clearly showing — may be displayed nearby.

For purists, caviar is best eaten solo. Using a specially designed spoon made of bone, crystal or mother-of-pearl (metal spoons supposedly alter caviar’s taste), the caviar berries are gently lifted from their dish in a vertical motion and savored without interruption from other ingredients.

Accompaniments and Pairings

Caviar is often served with crisp, freshly buttered toast points. The buttered triangles, topped with salty caviar and a dollop of crème fraiche, create a festival of flavors. The taste is at once salty and sweet, yet tangy and delicate.

Blini, thin buckwheat pancakes of Russian origin, are topped with a spoonful of caviar and a dot of sour cream and then loosely rolled into a tube.

In some Eastern European countries, caviar is eaten with small steamed potatoes. And, to stretch its quantities, restaurants often serve caviar with chopped red onions, thin slivers of hard-boiled eggs and sour cream, all garnished with parsley.

Storing and Enjoying Leftover Caviar

Whether fresh or pasteurized, caviar leftovers will keep only for a day or two. In the meantime, place the caviar into its original container, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and then replace the lid.

Place it in the coldest part of your refrigerator, but pack the caviar container in ice if the fridge doesn’t maintain a temperature below 32 degrees.

As caviar-lovers will attest, however, the best possible way to store uneaten caviar is by practicing strict avoidance. In other words, buy as much as you need for the moment and indulge until the last voluptuous orb has been devoured — preferably off the back of your hand where the warmth liberates each pearl’s fragrance.

After all, caviar’s historical mystique is as satisfying to the mouth as it is to the mind.

Caviar-covered Sushi? Not Likely.

The brightly colored roe used in the preparation of sushi comes from some species of flying fish and Icelandic capelin. Known as “tobiko caviar,” its colors range from black to orange. Tobiko is often flavored with spices and is sometimes used to make California rolls. Since this roe does not come from any fish in the sturgeon family, it’s not considered true caviar.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Advertisement

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

What makes certain foods so expensive?

11 of the World’s Most Expensive Foods

More Great Links

Caviar Emptor

University of Georgia sturgeon farm

CNN: “World’s Priciest Foods”

Sources

“Caviar Rules.” The New York Times, March 3, 1993.

“Caviar.” The New York Times, March 3, 1993.

“Vegetarian Caviar Food fit for a Pauper.” The Calgary Herald, Aug. 18, 2008. http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/calgarybusiness/story.html?id=6209a57e-dc72-4670-89b1-90ec35d7ad76

“What a Fish!” The New York Times, March 3, 1993.

Bennett, Vanora. The Taste of Dreams: An Obsession with Russia and Caviar. Headline Books, 2003

Carey, Richard Adams. The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire. Counterpoint, 2005

Caviar Emptor. http://www.caviaremptor.org/index.html

CITES.org. “Caspian Sea States to Resume Caviar Trade.” http://www.cites.org/eng/news/press/2002/020306_caviar_resumption.shtml

Coyle, L. Patrick, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Food. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1982.

Dean, Cornelia. “U.S. Broadens Ban on Caviar To Include the Black Sea Basin.” The New York Times. Oct. 29, 2005. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9805EFD81E3FF93AA15753C1A9639C8B63

Explanatory Notes to the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System. Brussels: Customs Cooperation Council, 2002.

Goetz, Philip W., ed. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1986.

Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States, 2006. Washington DC: United States International Trade Commission, 2006.

Kozlova, Marina. “Despite the Lifting of Ban, Caviar Problems Far from Over.” Asia Water Wire. April 24, 2009. http://www.asiawaterwire.net/node/527

Lapenkova, Marina. “Russian Caviar Risks Extinction.” Cosmos Magazine. May 10, 2006. http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/news/112/russian-caviar-risks-extinction

Le Goff, Olivier. The World of Caviar. Chartwell, 1999.

Lewis, Flora. “The Black Market in Iranian Caviar.” The New York Times, January 23, 1980.

Mannino, Brynn. “Top 10 Innovative Ice Cream Flavors.” Woman’s Day. June 10, 2009. http://www.womansday.com/Articles/Food/Top-10-Innovative-Ice-Cream-Flavors.html

Pew Trusts. “U.S. Government Acknowledges Beluga Sturgeon ‘Threatened with Extinction’ But Takes No Action to Protect the Fish.” April 20, 2004. http://www.pewtrusts.org/news_room_detail.aspx?id=22870

Philippe Faur. http://www.philippefaur.com/product_info.php?cPath=5&products_id=77&florsid=5360e184eab99baf064c68fff6160bcf

Podger, Corinne. “Beluga caviar faces U.S. ban.” BBC, Aug. 14, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2193282.stm

Science Daily. “Beluga Sturgeon Threatened with Extinction, Yet Caviar Quota Remain Unchanged.” March 6, 2008. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080304093748.htm

Susie Boeckmann and Natalie Rebeiz-Nielson,Caviar. Octopus, 2002

Swengel, Andrea Lynn. Discovering Caviar. Campbell and Lewis, 2008

U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. “What Every Member of the Trade Community Should Know About Caviar.” http://www.cbp.gov/linkhandler/cgov/trade/legal/informed_compliance_pubs/icp011.ctt/icp011.pdf

Van Loon, Jeremy and Morales, Alex. “Shark-Fin Soup, Over-fishing Threaten Predators with Extinction.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top