It’s the choice hors d'oeuvre of Russian oligarchs, the final touch on a Japanese sushi roll, and an ingredient that demands respect and regard. For myself, eating caviar is like sitting down at an “old money” dinner table when I am “no money.” However, this animal product is largely a farce in the world of fanciness. In springtime, anglers catching pre-spawn fish can do it at home with hardly any effort or ingredients.
The History of Caviar On the subject of caviar, most people think sturgeon. And for good reason, because technically speaking, real caviar can only come from sturgeon. Anything else is considered fish roe—similar to how authentic Scotch can only come from Scotland.
These prehistoric fishes produce some of the finest examples of what fish roe has to offer—so much so that commercial fishermen nearly wiped out American populations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Spruce Eats, there were times when American sturgeon caviar was sent to Europe, relabeled as Russian caviar, and returned to the U.S. at an even higher premium. Clever scam, I must say.
However, caviar hasn’t always been a delicacy for the aristocrats. The Moscow Times reports that peasants were the first Russians to consume fish eggs, and they did it by the bowl. The royal shift reportedly came when Ivan the Terrible developed a taste for the poor mans’ cereal. His palate was clearly as sophisticated as his murderous methods.
Lubricated with fine vodka, Russian Tsars enjoyed the modern version of caviar and its notoriety soon spread like wildfire around the globe.
Types of Caviar (Roe) By far the most distinguished fish eggs comes from the critically endangered beluga sturgeon, fetching thousands of dollars per kilo. However, many other sturgeon species including the osetra, sevruga, kaluga, white, and Siberian fetch high price tags.
The shadowy eggs of the American paddlefish can rival those of a sturgeon, but let's move away from dinosaur eggs. Flying fish roe can be found on many sushi rolls. The miniature eggs called tobiko pack a salty punch and make an appetizing garnish. Masago, or smelt roe, is an equivalent. Trout and salmon produce larger, orange roe that can be smoked to add even more flavor. Some members of the MeatEater crew like to fry their jumbo perch roe in whole skeins.
While the roe of most fish can be safely enjoyed, some fish produce ichthyotoxic eggs that should not be eaten. Gar and cabezon both have tasty flesh that is perfectly safe to consume, but their eggs contain toxins that will likely result in hospitalization if ingested.
How to Make Caviar Preparing fish eggs is a simple process, and you don’t need a spoon carved from a mother-of-pearl oyster or abalone to enjoy it. Lianne Won-Reburn of Marshallberg Farms, a sturgeon producer based in North Carolina, was kind enough to lend me some instruction. You can also watch this process in MeatEater’s Fur Hat Ice Tour, where Janis Putelis tries to spear sturgeon in Wisconsin and learns how to make caviar.
Ingredients and Equipment • Flour salt or regular kosher salt • Fish eggs • Mesh screen • Large bowl • Airtight jars
- Remove the eggs from the connective membrane or skein by rubbing them over a wire screen. The eggs should fall through the screen into a bowl while the membrane remains trapped above. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to separate the eggs by simply squeezing them out of the fish.
- Wash the eggs in semi-salty ice water. Repeat this process until the water runs clean after washing through the eggs.
- Look for impurities in the cleaned eggs and remove them from the lot.
- Weigh the salt and mix it into the eggs. Marshallberg Farms uses 4% salt per egg volume for sturgeon roe. Depending on the size and type of egg, you may need to adjust the salt content.
- Place the eggs over a clean surface and allow to air dry in front of a fan for 7-8 minutes, occasionally patting them with a paper towel as the salt pulls out moisture.
- Package the eggs in an airtight container and place in the fridge.
- Serve over crackers with sour cream.
Notes • The roe will last up to 10 days unfrozen before getting a fishy smell. • Air and moisture are your enemies, so package caviar with care. • Depending on your fishing regulations, expired fish eggs work well as bait.