Ahi sashimi with ginger and wasabi whitefish caviars. Served at Tsar Nicoulai Cafe in the Ferry Building, San Francisco.
Caviar Q & A
Questions We Get Asked Often
About One Of Our Favorite Foods
Q. How long does caviar last?
Storage is key. Caviar in unopened vacuum sealed jars will maintain their freshness for five to six weeks (a few weeks longer if stored on ice in the refrigerator); and unopened tins will be fresh for about two weeks. Once a jar or tin is opened, the caviar should be consumed within two to three days for maximum flavor. It can be eaten beyond then, but it begins to deteriorate.
Q. What is the best way to store caviar?
Keep caviar in the coldest part of the refrigerator, usually the back (never on the door or in the storage bins, which are warmer). Caviar should be served well-chilled to bring out its subtle flavors. That’s why caviar serving dishes have separate compartments for ice.
Q. Can caviar be frozen?
Freezing doesn’t destroy the flavor of sturgeon caviar, but it does soften the texture of the delicate eggs. Since much of the experience of caviar is textural—you pay for the “pop”—it should never be frozen. The eggs of whitefish, trout and salmon caviars are sturdier, and can be frozen. Once defrosted, however, do not refreeze the roe.
Q. What’s the difference between Beluga, Osetra, Sevruga, and Malossol caviars?
The roes vary in size, color and flavor...and price. Beluga, Sevruga, and Osetra refer to the species of sturgeon. Beluga, the largest fish (it can weigh up to 2,000 pounds) has the largest eggs, buttery in flavor, soft in texture. They range from pale silver to black in color. Beluga can be twice the price of Osetra. Osetra is a medium-size, generally brownish egg with a nutty flavor and an oilier, silkier texture than Beluga (it is the “melts in your mouth” caviar). Sevruga is the most common species of the three, making it the most affordable. The sturgeon is small and reproduces faster than the others. The eggs are generally gray or greenish and crunchier than the others; it also has the strongest flavor.
Malossol is Russian for “little salt,” and refers to a skillful, lighter salting used to preserve the caviar. With today’s refrigeration, even less salt is used by fine caviar producers.
Q. Is Asetra caviar the same as Osetra?
No, Asetra is a species from the Iran side of the Caspian Sea. It is a complex and sophisticated caviar, from dark to light gray. There is also Golden Asetra from albino sturgeons of the species.
Q. Is Beluga the best caviar?
Beluga is the rarest caviar, which drives the price; it is the costliest caviar and thus it is considered the most prestigious. However, it’s not necessarily the best unless you equate higher price with higher quality. While some people actually do prefer Beluga, it is the most subtle of the three. Some people prefer the nuttier Sevruga or the the more flavorful Osetra. Some like all three equally, as Bordeaux aficionados might equally like the distinctly different flavors of Chateaux Mouton, Latour, and Cheval Blanc. As with any food or wine choice, caviar preference is entirely subjective. But because exclusivity breeds snobbery, there are some for whom Beluga is the only caviar; and the typical gray color of Beluga roe is labeled as the highest grade, even though color has no bearing on taste (i.e., the more gray and silvery the roe, the higher the price the roe commands). For the same money as basic Beluga, many caviar connoisseurs would rather have twice as much Osetra or three times as much Sevruga.
Does color affect the taste of the caviar?
No. Caviar is a natural product, and natural products vary in color, texture and consistency. Among Beluga, Sevruga, and Osetra, for example, colors can range from silver gray to brown to black; although Beluga is generally more gray and Osetra more black. There are rare golden Osetras (coming from albino fish, the roe is actually yellow, and extremely costly due to the rarity). But the color of the roe is an appearance quality only, and does not affect the flavor.
Q. I've seen the terms “manufactured” and “produced.” Don’t the fish produce the caviar?
There is a simple but crucial manufacturing process. The tissue bearing the roe is removed from the fish and set on a frame (a grohotka) where it is punched to separate the eggs, or grains, from the connecting substance. The grains are washed out, reset on a sieve, and weighed; and the necessary quantity of fine, dry table salt (a percent of weight, no more than 5% for fine caviar—malossol is 3.5%—though prepacked commercial barrel caviar can use up to 10% salt) is added as a preservative. Damaged roe is removed (and used for pressed caviar), and the caviar is sorted and graded. It is packed into tins from .5 to 1.8 kilos in weight for sale to distributors, who repack it into smaller tins and jars for sale to consumers.
Q. What’s the difference between American sturgeon and Russian sturgeon caviar?
The primary difference is the species. There are 27 species of sturgeon in the world. The three that are fished in Russia and Iran are the Beluga, the Osetr (the caviar from the Osetr is Osetra), and the Sevruga. Just as those three sturgeon caviars taste distinctly different from each other, so will the different species of sturgeon caviar in America taste different from their Caspian Sea counterparts and from each other. (The primary caviar sturgeons in American are the White and Hackleback sturgeons.)
Over-fishing has put all species of sturgeon on the Endangered Species List. Critical shortages in the Caspian have sent the Russian and Iranian caviar markets into a downward spiral, causing Russian caviar to be much harder to find and putting a strain on the Iranian stock. There is currently no initiative in place to resolve the crisis. The difference is that environmentally conscious producers in the United States, dedicated to sustainable harvesting (that which does not deplete the stock of sturgeon), have risen to fill the increasing void. Further, American caviars are a much more affordable option, primarily due to wider availability; but also because of demand based on caviar snobbery, as many traditional buyers will only purchase Caspian.
NOTE: SEE UPDATED INFORMATION in Caspian Caviar Update, January 2006.
Q. Will American caviar ever approach Russian and Iranian caviar in flavor and quality?
As mentioned above, American quality is equal to any; it’s the taste that’s slightly different because American sturgeon species are different from Caspian species; and their caviar is as distinctly different as the roes from the Beluga, Osetr and Sevruga sturgeons differ in taste. By analogy, all apples taste similar; but there is no generic species of apple, so a Granny Smith will have a distinctly different taste from a Golden Delicious. If you only want Granny Smith, you will be disappointed by Golden Delicious. If you love apples, you will learn to enjoy both. It is important to note that there are several sturgeon species indigenous to the U.S.; and at the turn of the 19th century the U.S. was one of the largest caviar producing countries in the world until depletion caused an end to commercial fishing. Had we continued as a caviar-producing nation, we would be accustomed to the flavor of our own caviars instead of those from the Caspian. Now, 150 years later, we are regaining our American caviar heritage, with its own special flavor nuances. In fact, most of the caviar consumed in this country, comes from either American sturgeon or other fish.
Q. What’s the difference between farmed caviar and wild caviar?
To answer a complex question briefly, there are three interlaced issues: environmental, quality, and sustainability. In terms of environment, farmed sturgeon swim in clean artesian well water and are fed an all natural feed; whereas wild sturgeon can swim in polluted waters (a problem in the Caspian) and eat food from those waters. In terms of quality, the caviar of fine farmed sturgeon actually rivals that of the wild caviar—i.e., it has a fresh and clean, buttery finish. There are obvious differences in flavor, but this is due to species, environment, and other factors. In terms of sustainability, caviar from farm raised sturgeon does not deplete natural resources (the sturgeon) to produce the caviar. This is critically important, given that all 27 species of sturgeon are on the endangered species list.
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