While caviar has only been enjoyed by the most powerful people throughout history, recent farming efforts have made the delicacy a bit more affordable for the average consumer. If you want to learn more about black caviar, this guide has everything you need to know about this incredible fish product.
Black caviar is a fish delicacy made exclusively from sturgeon roe. Unfertilized fish eggs needed for the product are harvested from several sturgeon species, whose colors range from jet black to pale silver-gray. Black caviar has a long and expensive production cycle, which makes it one of the world’s most luxurious delicacies.
How many types of black caviar are there? How much does it cost? How is it prepared and consumed? This guide will answer these and many other burning questions you might have about the delicacy.
What Is Black Caviar?
While the term caviar can include foods made of roe harvested from several different types of fish, true or black caviar comes from unfertilized sturgeon eggs. Sturgeon is a common name for 27 species of fish in the Acipenseridae family, almost all of which can be harvested for caviar. However, only roe from a few species is actually used in commercial caviar production.
Despite its name, this caviar is not always entirely black, with color primarily depending on the species the eggs were extracted from. Besides jet black, it can also be brown and deep khaki green, with some sturgeons even producing light gray, silver, and golden roe.
What Types of Black Caviar Are There?
While the sturgeon family consists of 27 living species, the roe needed for black caviar is harvested from only seven different fish. However, only five different types of black caviar are widely present on the global market, including:
- Beluga – The beluga sturgeon is the largest member of the whole family and also produces the biggest eggs. It’s arguably the best black caviar, as it doesn’t have a strong fishy taste, making it appealing even to non-fish lovers. The roe color ranges from almost jet black to pearl gray, with lighter-colored eggs typically coming from older individuals. A special type of beluga-albino caviar called Almas is made from eggs of very rare albino sturgeons that are between 60 and 100 years old.
- Kaluga – Although harvested from freshwater sturgeons, Kaluga caviar has a very similar lightly buttery taste with a mild salty overtone just like the Beluga. The roe is typically black or khaki green but can also be yellow in older individuals, while the eggs themselves are large and have a smooth surface.
- Osetra – Unlike the Beluga, this caviar has a natural salty sea-like taste, and its roe is slightly smaller. Eggs are typically light gray or dark or golden brown, with older sturgeons producing lighter-color roe. Osetra roe easily melts on the tongue and features a rich, creamy, and nutty flavor.
- Sevruga – This caviar is produced from three different sturgeon species that live in the Caspian Sea: sevruga, Siberian sturgeon, and sterlet. The small and delicate dark gray eggs have a very distinct buttery flavor, which makes sevruga one of the most sought-after caviar types in the world.
- American – Similar to sevruga, the American caviar is also made of roe extracted from three different species, including lake sturgeon, white sturgeon, and Atlantic sturgeon. The size and color of the eggs vary between species, with eggs typically being black, brown, or khaki green.
How Is Black Caviar Produced?
The production of caviar has a long history, with the dish being a very popular delicacy among the rich and powerful for over a thousand years. Until a few decades ago, black caviar was widely produced by harvesting wild sturgeon populations swimming in the Black and Caspian Seas.
However, extended periods of overfishing have significantly reduced the sturgeon numbers, endangering 18 out of 27 species that exist today. Once the species were officially put on the endangered list, many countries banned the sale and import of Caspian sturgeons and their products, including caviar. To this day, you still can’t buy Beluga caviar in the US.
This has led many fish farms across the world to start producing sturgeons, as the demand for these delicacies has only increased since the ban. Most of the caviar produced today is farmed, which has helped bring back many species from the brink of extinction.
What Is the Difference Between Wild and Farmed Black Caviar?
Taste is the main difference between caviar harvested in the wild and on a fish farm. Wild sturgeons have a much more varied diet than farmed ones, which greatly impacts the flavor of their roe.
Wild caviar is typically more complex and intense overall, but its taste and quality can vary significantly. On the other hand, farmed sturgeons have a very specific and controlled diet, resulting in uniform taste and consistent quality.
How Is Black Caviar Harvested?
Before fish farms started producing sturgeons, fishermen used to acquire roe from the fish by stunning them and extracting the entire ovaries or “roe sacks,” after which they would throw the fish back into the water to die. Considering sturgeons take up to 20 years to mature, this was very unsustainable and directly caused the species to become endangered.
While a similar method is still used in fish farms today, fishermen have created several ways to extract roe without killing the animal. Instead of removing entire ovaries, performing a cesarean section allows the female sturgeon to continue producing eggs.
“Stripping” is another popular extraction method. Farmers will monitor the fish to determine the ideal harvesting time, after which they will make a small incision along the urogenital area and extract the eggs. The roe can also be removed by massaging, which may also yield higher quality black caviar.
Considering these methods don’t kill the fish, they create a much more sustainable source of roe, allowing fish farms to have a steady production of black caviar throughout the years.
How Is Black Caviar Processed After Extraction?
Caviar processing hasn’t changed during the last century, meaning that most techniques are pretty straightforward. Once the ovaries or roe have been extracted from the female sturgeon, the farmers will first remove the membrane by sieving it. Freed eggs also need to be rinsed with water to clear them from all impurities, after which they are ready for further processing.
There are four different types of caviar according to the processing technique used during the production:
- Salted – Caviar is very perishable, so salt is always added to keep it from losing its quality or going bad before reaching the consumers. However, this also affects the taste of the product as time passes before it’s consumed.
- Malossol – This Russian term literally translates to “little salt,” meaning that barely any salt is used when processing the roe. Many caviar experts agree that the final product is better the less salt it has. However, the less salt the caviar has, the more perishable it is, which makes these products much more expensive.
- Pressed – Eggs that are weak, damaged, or broken from the sieving process can still be used to make caviar, but they have to be appropriately pressed and salted first. Considering the final product has a jam-like consistency, it’s primarily used as a spread or cooking ingredient.
- Pasteurized – This form of caviar is firmer than the ones I mentioned earlier, which allows it to be less perishable than usual. The roe is heat-treated and vacuum-packed in special glass jars to preserve the caviar’s quality. However, it’s important to note that the processing will almost certainly affect the texture and taste of the final product.
How to Distinguish Good Black Caviar From a Bad One?
While I already talked about which type of black caviar is considered the best, it’s also essential to learn to distinguish a high-quality product from a bad one. The best way to assess the caviar’s quality is to use the “The Three Ts” system, established by the acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud.
The Three Ts stand for taste, texture, and tone, which represent the most important qualities of any caviar. When it comes to taste, the product shouldn’t be too salty or have any bitter or unpleasant flavors.
Texture-wise, the eggs need to be firm enough to be separated by tongue without bursting immediately, but not so much that they can’t pop when pushed against the hard palate.
The caviar’s tone is defined by its color, which needs to be clear and have a nice glisten to it. Assessing the quality of caviar is not always easy, but if the product tastes wrong in any way, it’s either too old or poorly made.
How Much Does Black Caviar Cost?
The price of black caviar changes often, but most entry-level black caviar found at retailers start at about $65-$85 per 30 grams (about an ounce). High-quality products start at $150 for the same amount.
To put that into perspective, 30g or an ounce of caviar is barely a large enough serving for a single person, so it’s not surprising that this delicacy is often called “black gold.” To see how typical prices measure up among different sturgeons, take a look at the table below.
|Type of caviar by species||Beluga||Almas||Kaluga||Osetra||Sevruga||White American|
|Price per ounce of product (about 28 grams)|
Why Is Black Caviar So Expensive?
Considering the amount of money needed to buy even the cheapest black caviar available, many wonder what makes this delicacy so expensive. There are, in fact, several reasons that explain the black caviar’s higher price point:
- Roe availability – While farming has made specific sturgeons more accessible, reducing the cost of the process, rare and desired species like beluga or almas still have a much higher price point on average.
- Long reproductive cycle – Sturgeons have significantly longer life spans than most other fish species, living on average up to 50 or 60 years. Depending on the species, it might take up to 20 years before they start producing eggs. Once they spawn, the female fish might need anywhere between three to twelve years before it can do it again.
- Expensive production – Producing high-quality caviar requires a lot of resources, as many sturgeons require special conditions that are often very hard to replicate in fish farms. It also doesn’t help that harvesting is a slow manual process.
- Roe quality – The quality of the product can also impact the price significantly, with better tasting and less salty black caviar typically selling for more. Lighter-colored roe is generally more expensive, as it comes from older or rare albino sturgeons.
- Supply and demand – The relatively low product availability combined with high demand is one of the main reasons black caviar’s prices are often too high for the majority of consumers.
How Is Caviar Served and Consumed?
Considering caviar’s delicacy status, there are several different ways it can be consumed or served:
- As an appetizer – This is the most common way of serving this delicacy, and it can be done by placing it on neutral-tasting food like rice or buttered toast. It’s also commonly presented on a Russian pancake rolled with sour cream.
- On a spoon – Most professional chefs agree that caviar doesn’t need anything else to be enjoyed, which is why the delicacy is often served on its own. Considering the smaller size of servings per person (about 1 to 4 ounces), smaller bites are truly needed to appreciate all the flavors. It’s often consumed using a special spoon made of mother of pearl or pearl bone, as cutlery made of metal can impact the taste.
- Paired with other foods – Black caviar is also excellent when served with crème fraiche, hard-cooked eggs, mini potatoes, lemon wedges, and minced onions, with plenty more meals where the delicacy would be a great addition.
- With wine – Black caviar goes great with most white wines, as long as they are light, fruity, and chilled. Dry white wines like Chardonnay are an excellent choice, but steer clear of wines with big, oaky aromas, as these will only mask the caviar’s delicate flavors.
How Should Black Caviar Be Stored and for How Long?
As I already mentioned, caviar is often very perishable, so it’s crucial that you keep it refrigerated at all times. If you don’t want it to spoil quickly, the fridge temperature should be between 34 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit (1-3 °C), so it’s best to keep it on the bottom shelves. Don’t keep it refrigerated for too long, though, as the product gets saltier the longer it’s left to age.
Try Some Black Caviar Today and See What You’ve Been Missing
That was everything you needed to know about one of the world’s most famous delicacies. While black caviar might not be for everyone, you will never know until you’ve tried some yourself. There are plenty of products out there with just as many manufacturers, so you won’t have to spend a ton of money to have a simple tasting. Do it with a group of closest friends, and you’ll have an unforgettable experience.