In the United States, there are three different ways fish can be raised for consumption.
They can be farmed—raised entirely in captivity, in tanks, ponds, or other highly controlled enclosures, and fed pelleted diets formulated specifically for their growth and health.
They can be wild-caught—either raised and caught entirely in the wild or raised in a hatchery until they’re big enough to safely release into the wild and then caught later.
And finally, they can be ranched, which combines elements from both farming and wild-caught practices. In this process, fish are raised in a hatchery until they’re big enough to have a good chance of survival and then stocked in lakes or ponds, where they’ll eat whatever’s there. Some intervention is possible, but ranchers largely leave these fish to fend for themselves.
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These days, consumers don’t have much of a choice in how the fish their caviar or roe comes from was raised. Following the catastrophic decimation of wild sturgeon around the world, almost all the caviar now produced is farmed.
By contrast, salmon, bowfin, and whitefish roe always come from fish caught in the wild. The method depends largely on federal and state regulations, commercial fishing industry conventions, and the size of local fish populations.
And one method is not necessarily better than the other, at least from an ethical standpoint. While there are certainly arguments to be made for fish raised entirely in the wild, at its best, aquaculture—the practice of farming seafood—helps conserve those wild fish populations and their habitats and establishes safer, cleaner, and more ethical practices for raising and harvesting fish.
Still, we were curious to see if there might be any flavor differences between wild-caught and farmed or ranched products, knowing that diet, environment, and living conditions can all have a significant impact on the flavor of a fish’s eggs.
Since we couldn’t actually try both wild-caught and farmed caviar, we did the next best thing. We talked to Éric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin and a man with considerable experience eating, preparing, and serving caviar over several decades.
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Ripert noted that caviar made from farmed fish was more consistent in quality and had a milder, cleaner, fresher profile than the wild-caught Russian products he’d eaten in decades past, which had a stronger, fishier, more assertive flavor. As a result, he finds that he now treats farmed caviar differently.
Gone are the chopped boiled eggs, capers, and raw onions that used to accompany Russian caviar—flavors robust enough to compete with that of the wild-caught caviar. Instead, he opts for a more delicate approach, serving his farmed caviar with simpler accoutrements—just blini, toast, and a little crème fraîche.