Like truffles, wagyu beef, or saffron, caviar is one of those luxurious food items that's loved by the haute cuisine crowd. But why exactly has this fishy accoutrement become so popular? We've tapped expert Lisa Simon from Sterling Caviar to answer your questions—from what is caviar to why is it so expensive, and even why some kinds are hard to find in the U.S. Here, your guide to everything you need to know about caviar.
What Is Caviar?
In short, caviar is salt-cured roe, aka unfertilized fish eggs. And true caviar can only come from one of the 27 species of sturgeon. At Sterling, caviar comes from sustainably raised white sturgeon. While caviar eggs are tiny—2.9 millimeters is an average size of a single egg-sturgeon fish can grow quite large. The average weight of a male sturgeon fish is 20 pounds. But 1,500 pounds is the largest recorded white sturgeon, which was estimated to be about 100 years old.
Why Is Caviar so Expensive?
Caviar price is determined much like any other luxury product. It can be expensive due to the type of fish the caviar comes from, how long it takes to produce (it can take 10 years to harvest roe from one fish), the quality of salt, manufacturing time, and simple supply and demand.
Red Caviar vs. Black Caviar: What's the Difference?
While many envision jet black beads, caviar actually comes in an array of shades. "It surprises many people that not all caviar is black," said Simon. "From greenish-brown to even golden, the eggs come in a wide array of hues, and color does not impact flavor."
Case in point, the Two Color Caviar from Sterling Caviar in California is a rare find that until now has been exclusively sold to one three-star Michelin restaurant, Benu, due to its limited production. Even rarer is their golden-hued Imperial Caviar. There is a 0.02 percent chance of finding Sterling's Imperial in a given year.
Caviar Is Best Served in Mother of Pearl
For optimal results, Sterling recommends serving caviar in its original tin or small glass or crystal dish over ice. Once opened, avoid excess exposure to air of your caviar by consuming it immediately or by placing the lid over the caviar in between servings. "The ideal way to serve caviar is from a mother of pearl spoon as it doesn't impart any unwanted taste to it," said Simon. "Be sure to avoid silver or metal spoons to serve, as they can impact the taste."
What Should Caviar Taste Like?
Given its origins, caviar should taste a bit salty and a bit fishy. But it should not be overpowering in either category. Instead it should be a balance of the two with a flavor like the ocean water. "I look at caviar-like an artist's palette, just as wine is complex with a wide array of flavors, so is caviar," said Simon. "I love to experiment with a wide array of recipes from tater tots and caviar to a grilled steak with caviar on top." Potato chips and soft boiled eggs are also excellent choices.
As far as how to eat caviar, you will need one to two ounces (30–50 grams) of caviar per person. If you are sharing caviar as a garnish or accompaniment on top of hor's d' oeuvres, it is safe to figure a half to one ounce (15–30 grams) per person/serving.
Is Beluga Caviar Legal?
The U.S. government banned all beluga products imported in 2005 after deeming the demand for the fish was causing the species to become critically endangered. But there is still one spot left that is legally allowed to breed beluga. Sturgeon AquaFarms in Florida was granted the only permit since owner Mark Zaslavsky brought his fish over before the ban. Incredibly, all the beluga today come from the original fish from 2003 and 2004.