Shopping for caviar and roe can be a bewildering experience—there are many different types and many different retailers. We’ve provided information to help you narrow down the specific type you might want. But even then it can be difficult to know whether you’re getting your product from a high-quality, reputable source. The caviar industry is plagued by poor practices, misinformation, fraud, and a lack of transparency. Over the years, DNA testing has repeatedly shown that caviar and roe are often mislabeled with the wrong species—less expensive types have been passed off as more expensive ones, for example. (There is at least one recent case of caviar with no trace of any animal DNA whatsoever being sold.) It’s hard to know who’s at fault—the company that processes the fish eggs? The retailer? Both? But the practice is common and worrisome.
If the roe or caviar comes from farmed fish, how do you know that the fish were raised and harvested properly, under clean, humane conditions? Even companies that seem at first glance to be invested in ethical, sustainable methods of raising and harvesting fish have proved to be suspect at times. And how do you know that that “farm” is really even raising its own fish? It’s common for caviar companies to source caviar from other producers and repackage it under their own brand. All of the brands in our caviar review raise their own fish.
If the fish eggs came from wild-caught fish, how do you know that those fish weren’t poached or otherwise illegally obtained? For fish that are often caught in the wild, such as paddlefish, these are real problems. There are seasons and quotas for catching fish in the wild, and greedy fishers or caviar smugglers sometimes catch more paddlefish than are allowed by local quotas, hurting wild populations. Worse, because it can sometimes be hard to tell the sex of a paddlefish just by looking at it, fishers will catch as many fish as it takes to get a mature female with lucrative roe, discarding (and thus killing) any males in the process.
In addition, the little information on caviar and roe that is available online has usually been supplied by the retailers themselves—people who have vested interests in your purchase. And since most of us don’t have extensive experience buying or eating caviar and roe, it’s hard to know whether what we get is accurate or even good.
All these issues complicate the process of buying caviar and roe. After months of research, we’re still not sure that it’s possible to recommend any source without qualification. But as one sturgeon farmer told us, education is key. Learning about what to look for and what to expect—and demanding more transparency and accountability from the people you buy your products from—is the best way to ensure that the industry improves its practices.
In the meantime, here are a few tips we’ve picked up along the way that will hopefully help you find what you need.
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Buy your caviar or roe directly from the producer whenever possible.
One of the best ways to ensure that you’re getting the highest-quality caviar or roe is to buy it directly from the farm or fishery where it’s made. There are several benefits to buying from the source.
- First, price. Farms often charge less than large-scale retailers, who often act as go-betweens for them.
- Second, you know where your caviar or roe is coming from. Many retailers won’t actually disclose their specific sources, in part because those sources change from time to time due to market competition. Buying directly from a farm doesn’t necessarily eliminate this problem, as we mentioned above. But it’s as close as you might be able to get. All the farms listed in our story were confirmed as raising their own fish and processing them for roe and caviar by Jackson Gross, aquaculture specialist at the University of California, Davis.
- Third, that caviar or roe is as fresh as it can possibly be. Caviar and roe are usually stored in large containers and must be repackaged into smaller units for sale. Retailers often do this repackaging (and rebranding with their own logo) ahead of time, allowing the caviar or roe to sit on the shelf for a while before it’s actually sent out to a customer. While the smaller containers are airtight, the process of transferring the eggs can initiate degradation. By contrast, most caviar farms will make your order from the larger tin right before they send it out to you, so any ill effects are limited.
That said, it’s not always possible to buy caviar and roe from their producers. Wild-caught fish is often processed by large-scale canneries that sell only wholesale. For hackleback caviar and most roe, you’ll need to go through a retailer. Here’s what you should keep in mind when purchasing from a retailer:
Buy in person if you can.
As Éric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin and noted caviar enthusiast recommended, the best way to know if you like a specific caviar is to taste it before you buy it. It might seem surprising, considering the price of a small spoonful or caviar, but some dedicated caviar retailers will actually let you do this at their brick-and-mortar locations. And if you can, you should—-there’s no sense in paying top dollar for something that isn’t quite your style.
If buying in person, look to see if the product has been properly refrigerated.
Caviar and roe are extremely perishable and should be kept as cold as possible before consumption to prevent the texture and flavor from degrading. Because they’re salted, they can actually be held at temperatures slightly lower than freezing—26 to 36 degrees is ideal. Avoid caviar or roe that has been stored in open refrigerator cases, as these tend to have higher temperatures and are more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations.
Make sure that your caviar has the right Latin name attached to it.
Different types of caviar are often marketed under a variety of fanciful common names. The best way to know that you’re getting the osetra or white sturgeon caviar that you want, and not some caviar made by a hybrid fish, is to check the Latin name—it should appear prominently on either the caviar packaging or the website. (Unfortunately, the Latin name alone doesn’t necessarily ensure that you’re getting that species—over the years, scientists have repeatedly used DNA testing to determine that as much as a third of all caviar came from species different from those indicated.)
Look for caviar and roe packaged in metal tins, not glass jars.
Tins are not only traditional but also superior when it comes to storage: Because they’re opaque, they keep out light that could ruin the flavor of the fish eggs by oxidizing the fats and making them rancid.
Avoid roe or caviar with pools of liquid in the bottom of the container—and know that you can return it if needed.
The fish eggs should be clear and distinct, with a clean (if mildly fishy!) scent. A little moisture in the container is fine, but the eggs should not be swimming in excess liquid—this is a sign of poor processing, packaging, storage, transportation, or a combination of any of the above.
Buy the right amount.
Caviar is intensely flavored—and expensive. A little goes a long way. When portioning caviar, the following conventions generally apply:
- 30 grams (1.06 ounces): 1–2 people
- 50 grams (1.77 ounces): 2–4 people
- 125 grams (4.41 ounces): 4–8 people
- 250 grams (8.82 ounces): 8–16 people
- 500 grams (17.64 ounces): 17–34 people
- 1,000 grams (35 ounces): OK, you better invite me over.
But these are just guidelines—feel free to order more or less. Regardless, you should buy only what you can reasonably eat in a day or so. Caviar and roe start to degrade as soon as you open the tin or jar and will turn mushy and lose their nuance over time.
If buying online, choose overnight shipping.
Again, caviar and roe are extremely perishable and should be kept as cold as possible until they get to you. Most retailers provide only overnight shipping to ensure that their product arrives in the best condition possible. But if they provide a range of options, make sure to choose overnight over cheaper two-day shipping so that your caviar or roe doesn’t get a chance to get too warm. Protect your investment!
Avoid getting caviar or roe delivered on Friday or Saturday.
If anything happens to your package while it’s in transit, the caviar or roe could sit in a shipping warehouse over the weekend and spoil.
Return or ask for a refund if needed.
If your roe or caviar is wet and mushy, has lots of broken shells (egg cases), or tastes sour (a sign that it’s gone rancid), try to return it or ask for a refund. Yes, some caviar retailers will actually allow you to do this as long as you provide documentation and have opened the product within a set time frame after you’ve received it, usually 24 hours—after a certain point, any degradation could be your fault. Check the terms of your purchase before you buy.
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