Caviar is fish eggs from one of several species of sturgeon fish. In fact, it’s the law in the United States and France that whenever the word caviar is used by itself, the fish eggs being marketed must be from a sturgeon. If the eggs are from another species of fish, the name of that fish must be used as a descriptor.
Historically, the desirability of sturgeon has been in this order: Beluga sturgeon first, Oserta sturgeon the next, and then Sevruga sturgeon.
Individual fish eggs in the caviar are referred to as “grains” or “berries”; you may also see caviar as a whole referred to as “roe.”
The eggs are salted to preserve them. Salt both preserves the fish eggs, and cures them, giving them their somewhat firm texture. Holding back on the salt shortens the storage life, but adds to its desirability. The best has only from 2 up to 5% of its weight in salt added. This is called in Russian “malossol”, meaning “little salt.”
The top grades such as Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga are generally salted only lightly; lower grades will be salted more.
Most agree that Caviar is definitely an acquired taste, though the best caviar won’t taste fishy or salty at all.
The eggs break down if frozen, and spoil at temperatures above 45 F (7 C.) Some caviar, though, is sold frozen: it’s not meant to be served on its own, but rather as a garnish for dishes.
To sort out the various kinds of Caviar, it may be best to think of several categories: European sturgeon, non-European sturgeon, farmed and wild.
Until the end of the 1900s, the production of Caviar involved killing the fish. In this method, sturgeon are caught in nets and hauled in. The fish are stunned by hitting them on the head so they are passive. Then, just before slaughter which may be at sea or on land, the fish are hit on the head again.
The belly is slit open, and the egg sack removed. The Russians remove it while still at sea; Iranians do it back on shore. The eggs are sieved to grade them by size, and to remove membrane from the roe sack, then rinsed with water, then classified and salted. Borax (Na2B407.10H20 ) is then added to sweeten and soften the eggs. It is not added to caviar destined for North American export, as the use of Borax is illegal there in food. With Borax in it, it can only be served in embassies in North America. Consequently, to compensate, most caviar exported to North America has to have more salt in it.
The eggs are then drained of any liquid that has come off them, then packed in glass jars with metal lids, or metal tins. The jars can be pasteurized to increase shelf-life, but pasteurization changes the flavour.
The harvest method for Caviar changed around 2000; it started becoming more prevalent, particularly with farmed sturgeon, to remove the roe surgically, and stitch the fish back up, so that the fish would still live to produce more roe.
North American produced caviar may come from sturgeon species such as Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) or White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus.)
There is another species of Russian sturgeon, Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii) from which caviar may come.
See also: Caviar Day
Most caviar sold in the world today is now from farmed sturgeon. In fish farms, females can start producing eggs between 7 and 9 years of age. At first, fans felt that farmed caviar tasted muddy, and it still can, depending on the variety it is from, especially, some say, American Paddlefish or Shortnose (Acipenser brevirostrum) sturgeon. But farmers have learnt to avoid that with other species and now use closed-circulation, land-based tanks. 15 % of the world’s caviar is sold through the Petrossian stores in Paris and New York and by 2012, all of the caviar they sold was farmed. Currently, farmed caviar from Germany is considered the most desirable.
Sellers of farmed caviar avoid the term Beluga, knowing it would draw too much attention from inspectors. So, they started labelling much farmed caviar as being Osetra caviar, even when it’s not actually from Osetra sturgeon. This false claim is not illegal in the United States, though it is misleading, and incorrect.
Caviar from Beluga sturgeon (scientific name Huso huso) is considered the undisputed best. A portion of it in the Bar Vendome at the Ritz Hotel in Paris cost £500 (€700) in 2007 . In 2005, a pound (450g) of it sold for around $3,000 US in America.
Beluga Caviar has the largest grains of all. The egg colour ranges from very black to dark grey. There’s a numeric grading system for Beluga caviar. 000 indicates lightest colour, 00 is medium, 0 is dark.
The membrane on the egg is very soft, and inside it is creamy, with a subtle taste of walnut.
Beluga fish can weigh up to 1,800 pounds (815 kg), be up to 30 feet (9 metres long), and live up to 100 years. A female starts producing eggs when 20 years old, and can yield up to 200 pounds (90 kg) of roe.
Beluga live mainly in the Caspian Sea, but also in the Azov, Adriatic and Black Seas, and in the Danube and Dnepr rivers.
Many people boycott Beluga now because it was declared an endangered species in 1996 by The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Dam construction has cut off most of their spawning locations.
A complete ban on the import of Caspian Sea Beluga caviar into the United States was imposed from 2005 to 2007, until producers could demonstrate that they had a management plan for the species. In 2007, import of 96 tons of Beluga caviar (representing 85% of 2005 levels) was allowed in but in 2009, the ban was reinstated and continued as of 2012. There is, though, a black market for it.
Two-thirds of the world’s supply of Beluga Caviar is sold to the United States. Eighty percent of that is purchased between November and New Year’s Day. It is now being farmed and any Beluga being sold by reputable dealers comes from sustainable stocks of farmed Beluga sturgeon.
This caviar comes from the fish known as Osetra (Ossetra, Osetrova, Osetrina or Osyetr) Sturgeon, Black Osyetr, or Acipenser gueldenstaedtii.
This sturgeon is a smaller fish than Beluga; it weighs about 700 pounds (320 kg.)
The Caviar is considered very good. The eggs are medium-sized, with a somewhat nutty taste, and their colour ranges from golden to light-brown.
Sometimes caviar from the Persian sturgeon (Acipenser persicus) is also called Osetra.
Most Osetra caviar is now from farmed fish.
Volga Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) Caviar
Volga Sterlet come originally from the Volga River region.
Owing to pollution, the species is practically extinct now, though it is being farmed. But even before stocks were depleted, their Caviar was still so expensive that practically only the Tsars could afford it.
Their small eggs are golden.
This Caviar comes from the smallest of all sturgeon. The fish is called sevryuga, chivrouga, starry sturgeon, stellate sturgeon and Acipenser stellatus.
The fish is caught using nets in the Azov, Black and Caspian seas. It can grow up to 7 feet (2 metres) long, and weigh up to 200 pounds (90 kg.)
The fish’s dark-grey eggs are the smallest of all sturgeon eggs. The Caviar can seem saltier, but this is because the eggs are smaller, with less surface area, and so more easily absorb more salt to their centre.
This is an American caviar being produced from American sturgeon, which live in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and surrounding waterways.
The fish is called variously paddlefish, spoonbill or shovel-nose cat (Polyodon spathula.) The fish grows from 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 metres) long; a third of its length is its nose. It has no scales, and lives 20 to 30 years.
The fish eggs are grey to black.
© Denzil Green
Lumpfish Caviar is eggs from lumpfish and whitefish caught in the North Atlantic between January and September. It consists of small, crisp pinkish eggs from the lumpfish, and white eggs from the whitefish. Both are dyed black, red or gold with food-safe vegetable-based colouring.
It is salty, inexpensive, and is also the best-selling caviar in the world owing to being the most affordable.
It is best used as a garnish, rather than served on its own. Still, the colour tends to “bleed” — if you use it to garnish a dollop of sour cream on a food item, for instance, it will leach its colouring into the surrounding sour cream. To reduce this a bit, before using it in a dish, drain first to remove excess dye.
Lumpfish Caviar was first made in the 1920s in Germany. It originally came from fish caught by Icelandic fisherman. Expansion of the industry began in the early 1970s. Now half the fish caught are by Icelanders; the other half caught by fishermen from Newfoundland. They harvest the fish eggs, and ship them in brine to countries such as Denmark, France and Germany for processing.
Payusnaya Caviar (aka Pressed Caviar)
This is damaged eggs that have been pressed into a strong tasting paste. It has a better shelf-life and is less expensive than whole Caviar.
It is popular in Russia and in Greece, but less popular in the West.
The colour of fish eggs from salmon ranges from deep orange to pale red. It is served on black breads, often with chopped onion and lemon juice.
Some say it shouldn’t be called Caviar at all, that it’s just fishbait.
As a garnish on hors d’oeuvres, allow ½ to 1 oz (15 to 30 g) per person. Served by itself, allow 1 to 2 oz (30 to 60 g) per person.
Caviar can’t be cooked, or it just toughens. When used in cooked dishes, it’s either used as a garnish, or added at the last minute.
Caviar is traditionally served in crystal over ice, using a spoon made of mother of pearl, though horn spoons are also being sold now. The traditional drink is ice-cold vodka or champagne.
In Russia, it was served with Russian white bread (“Kolache”, aka Kalach), sometimes toasted until dry, with unsalted butter.
Purists sniff that lemon, chopped onion and chopped egg should never be served with good grades of caviar.
Jars of both fresh and pasteurized caviar need to be stored between 26.5 F and 32 F (-3 C to 0 C). Fresh can be stored for 2 to 3 weeks before use; pasteurized will keep for 3 to 4 months at that temperature.
Use up opened jars within a week.
The Byzantines were making Caviar by the 1100s.
The French were eating Caviar as a fine delicacy by mid-1500s. It was being produced on the Gironde River in Aquitaine, France in the mid 1700s. But then, the Gironde became polluted and overfished, and dams cut off the spawning grounds for the fish. In modern-times, caviar production has been revived on the Gironde in France through fish farms.
Historically, the Russians shipped caviar in casks made of Linden wood, as it was felt that only Linden wood didn’t affect the taste.
Historically, Sturgeon was eaten by Indians in North America, but disdained by Americans of European descent. It was considered an inferior fish to eat, fit only for slaves. After the American Civil War (1861–1865) was over, though, savvy German immigrants began producing caviar from Delaware River sturgeon (aka Atlantic Sturgeon, Shortnose Sturgeon, Acipenser brevirostrum.) Within a few decades, they learnt how to out-compete Russian supplies (which came in wooden casks) by selling the caviar instead in sealed glass jars, so that it kept better. By the 1880s, a small town known as Caviar Point (now known as Bayside), on Stow Creek in Salem County, New Jersey became known (in America at least) as the “caviar capital of the world” because it shipped the largest volumes of caviar in the world at that time. By 1895, 22 wholesalers in the town were filling 15 train cars a day with caviar headed first to New York and then to Europe.  By 1900, the United States had become the world’s largest exporter of caviar (though again, a North American variety.) But at this point, North American sturgeon of all species had been fished to near extinction. The state of Georgia imposed a 5 year ban in 1901, and the United States imposed a nation-wide ban on sturgeon fishing in 1906.
In France, Caviar did not become widely fashionable until after the Russian revolution of 1917, when aristocratic Russian refugees brought their taste for it to Paris. Two brothers who were refugees from Russia, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, opened a Caviar store in Paris in 1920 to serve the other Russian ex-pats. Caviar had been popular in Paris throughout the 1800s amongst bon-vivants groups in Paris, but the Petrossians faced the challenge of developing a taste for it amongst broader groups of well-heeled gourmets. They arranged co-promotions at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at 15 Place Vendôme [Ed: many sources incorrectly state that César Ritz, who died in 1918, himself was involved.] “So in Paris [in 1920], after several angst-ridden months; their [the Petrossian brothers’] gamble was rewarded with 2 tons of malossol caviar… [but] the French turned up their noses at caviar. The Petrossians offered free samples at the [Ritz Hotel]… but only with spittoons nearby, since so many people would spit the caviar out… ”  Petrossian opened its New York store in 1980.
Sturgeon in the Caspian and Black Seas have been protected with quotas on catching and exporting since 1998 by the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES.)
Literature & Lore
It’s a myth that metal affects the taste of Caviar.
You will indeed read that metal can render the taste of Caviar into anything from unsavoury to off-putting and unwelcome. You will indeed see advice that the spoon should be mother of pearl, horn, bone, glass or porcelain, and that even plastic is better. (Some proffer, though, that gold is fine as a metal because gold is “non-reactive.”)
Truth to tell, the only interaction that can occur is that Caviar may tarnish silver, and that any taste people blame on metal is instead owing to their having bought cheap Caviar.
Still, no one’s going to own up to that, so the myth is incredibly persistent and has become one of the cherished mystiques about Caviar, and everyone parrots it without checking the facts. Though it wouldn’t take much footwork if people stopped for a second to connect dots in their minds — Caviar ships either in metal tins, or in jars with metal lids. And then they take it out and go, oh, I mustn’t have it go anywhere near metal.
But who wants to disillusion people? After all, what could be classier than dishing up caviar with a left-over plastic spoon from the Dairy Queen?
The English word “caviar” comes from the Turkish word “khavyah”, meaning roe.
The Russian word is “ikra”.
In Japanese, the term “Ikura” refers to salted salmon eggs.
 Rayner, Gordon. Princess Diana inquest holds court at the Ritz. London: Daily Telegraph. 10 October 2007.
 Commercial fishermen concerned about the impact of sturgeon’s endangered status. Atlantic City Press. 13 February 2012.
 Carey, Richard Adams. The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, And the Geography of Desire. Counterpoint Press. 2006. Page 57.
Clover, Charles. Beluga caviar banned from US menus to help save the sturgeon. London: Daily Telegraph. 29 September 2005.
Derbyshire, David. Expensive Taste. London: Daily Telegraph. 29 September 2005.
Dick, T.A, et al. The Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens. An Annotated Bibliography. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2006.
Fabricant, Florence. The Challenge of Knowing What’s Really in the Osetra Tin. New York Times. 16 December 2009.
Gill, Alexandra. Caviar dreams fulfilled: Ethical, delicious and even Canadian. Toronto, Canada: The Globe and Mail. 22 May 2012.
Leeder, Jessica. How one Maritime farm is bringing back an endangered fish – and its caviar. Toronto, Canada: The Globe and Mail. 5 June 2011.
Parker Bowles, Tom. Good eggs: There’s still plenty of sustainable caviar – time for a treat. London: Daily Mail. 17 September 2009.
Zuckerman, Laura. Beluga ban boosts domestic caviar farming. Reuters. 17 November 2005.