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Everything you always wanted to know about caviar (but were afraid to ask).
What You Need To Know
Caviar is a food that’s steeped in mystique. Few of us have eaten it in any great quantity, yet almost all of us have strong ideas about what it signifies. For many, caviar is more a concept than a thing to be consumed. Some see it as the pinnacle of culinary luxury, an epicurean tradition with an aura of Old World decadence. Others see it as an emblem of conspicuous consumption.
Everything We Tested
Recommended - Caviar
Sevruga is the third most famous member of the classic Russian caviar family; it’s made from the eggs of the starry sturgeon. In the United States, it's not currently possible to buy sevruga made in Russia, but two farms in Florida now raise starry sturgeon and produce their own sevruga. Compared with osetra, sevruga has a smaller bead and a stronger flavor profile that some tasters loved—it’s more briny, oily, and assertively fishy and has a slightly crunchier “pop” as well.
White sturgeon caviar accounts for the majority of all caviar produced in the United States. This is in part because the white sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in the United States, weighing up to 1,000 pounds; in a mature female, almost a quarter of that weight can be eggs. But the prevalence of white sturgeon caviar is also made possible by robust efforts to conserve and cultivate the white sturgeon itself in both California and Idaho. White sturgeon caviar is one of the priciest caviars made in the United States, but the quality is generally high: It has small, delicate eggs; a mild fishiness; and an almost beachy brininess.
Osetra is one of the three most iconic types of Russian caviar; it’s made from the eggs of the Russian sturgeon. While it’s no longer possible to import osetra directly from Russia, two farms in the United States currently raise Russian sturgeon and produce osetra on their own. The caviar itself is relatively tender and tastes rich, buttery, and deeply savory, with nutty notes that some tasters likened to those found in cheese or prosciutto.
Hackleback caviar comes from the shovelnose sturgeon, which is the smallest species of sturgeon in the United States, topping out at just 5 pounds. The shovelnose is also the only American sturgeon that can still be legally caught in the wild, as native populations are relatively abundant and remain stable. The shovelnose sturgeon is a bottom feeder, thriving on aquatic insects and crustaceans that live in the beds of lakes and rivers. Perhaps as a result, the caviar made from its eggs is funky and fishy, with an earthy, “pondy” edge. And the eggs themselves are similar in size to the other caviars we tasted, with a semifirm texture.
Recommended - Roe
Primarily caught in the wild, though occasionally ranched (see “Does It Matter Whether Your Caviar Comes from Wild-Caught or Farmed Fish?”), the paddlefish is a close relative of the sturgeon. The connection is strong enough that paddlefish roe has sometimes been smuggled out of the United States and sold as sevruga caviar. Though it’s lighter in color than sevruga, paddlefish roe does taste remarkably similar; it’s usually quite briny, with “kelp-like” vegetal and mineral notes that can probably be attributed to the paddlefish’s diet of plankton (algae and microscopic animals and invertebrates). That said, it’s a little sharper in flavor than sevruga, with a touch of acidity and bitterness that some tasters enjoyed.
Trout roe is made from the eggs of several species of farmed trout. Trout roe is similar to salmon roe: It has the same sweetness and fruitiness but is a little milder-, fresher-, and leaner-tasting. And while its beads are still fairly firm, providing a satisfying pop, they’re a bit smaller than salmon roe’s. It can often be found in smoked variants as well.
Salmon roe is produced from the eggs of several different types of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, though it’s most commonly made from chum (also called keta or dog) salmon. Regardless of the species it comes from, salmon roe has the largest beads of any roe on the market, with firm, pearl-size orbs that pop decisively in the mouth. Its flavor is “just like salmon”—rich, buttery, a little fruity, and slightly sweet. Much of Alaskan salmon roe is sold to Japan, where it’s called ikura (a Japanese adaptation of the Russian word “ikra,” or “caviar”) and used in sushi or special rice bowls called don.
Like the sturgeon, the bowfin is considered a “living fossil”—it’s the last remaining member of its primitive, prehistoric order of bony fish. For years, sport fishers thought of bowfin as a “trash fish”—aggressive; hard to catch and process; and most likely eating other, more valuable fish such as bass. But bowfin roe is quite tasty, with tiny, firm, snappy eggs. Its flavor is relatively straightforward—mildly fishy, fresh-tasting, and a bit tangy. Some tasters found it almost “spicy” as well.
Whitefish roe is made from the especially small eggs of the lake whitefish, which is actually a member of the salmon family. The roe has a striking golden-yellow color and a very small, very firm, crisp bead. It is quite fishy, briny, and bright, with almost metallic notes—one taster compared its flavor (favorably!) to that of a young sardine. Because of its small size, crunchy texture, and relatively low price, it’s often used as a garnish or to add textural interest and a hint of fish to simple pastas, risotto, sushi, and other Asian dishes.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Miye is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She covers booze, blades, and gadgets of questionable value.