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What is Caviar?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Caviar is an expensive delicacy consisting of the unfertilized eggs (roe) of sturgeon brined with a salt solution. Classic caviar comes primarily from Iran or Russia, harvested by commercial fishermen working in the Caspian Sea. A specific species of sturgeon called beluga provide what many consider to be the best in the world.

A female sturgeon's roe supply may constitute as much as 25% of her total body weight. Considering that mature sturgeons can weigh 300 pounds, each one can provide a substantial amount of caviar over a lifetime. In recent years, however, a combination of natural and man-made problems have seriously threatened the future of Caspian Sea caviar harvesting. Beluga sturgeon populations have been declining at an alarming rate. Other species of sturgeon and fish have become increasingly popular alternatives to Russian and Iranian caviar.

In the early 19th century, the United States was actually the world's leading producer of caviar, mainly due to the abundance of lake sturgeon in the Northeast and West. Roe was so plentiful and inexpensive at one point that saloons served it to create thirsty customers. It was only later when imported supplies from Iran and Russia became limited that caviar became a luxury item.

As with many other gourmet foods served at formal functions, there are etiquette rules attached with caviar. It should never be served with metal utensils — the sensitive "berries" (the proper name for roe) can develop a very off-putting metallic taste. Caviar spoons made from bone, mother of pearl or tortoise shell are sold in specialty shops for just such occasions. When served on a small cracker or canape, it should be eaten in one bite, but caviar served as an appetizer should be mixed with chopped egg whites and yolks and placed on toast points before eating.

In the United States, tins of caviar must list the name of the fish first, unless it is definitely sturgeon roe. Other fish used in its production could be paddle fish, salmon or a contemporary of the sturgeon called bowfin or "Choupique." Each variety of fish produces a distinctive flavor of roe, with some even rivaling or surpassing the quality of Russian or Iranian brands.

The flavor of caviar is often referred to as an acquired taste, but those who enjoy it say it is an intense explosion of complex flavors. The brining solution contributes a little to the overall palate, but enthusiasts often savor the luxurious texture and indescribably rich taste of the berries themselves.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon261569 — On Apr 16, 2012

Is caviar an aphrodisiac?

By anon153456 — On Feb 17, 2011

What health benefits can you get from eating caviar?

By alex94 — On Jul 11, 2010

@jeancastle00: A better substitute for the expensive caviar than lumpfish can be found around Arkansas. This caviar is harvested from the paddlefish or spoonbill members of the sturgeon family. The eggs are smoky-colored instead of black. They sell for about $20 an ounce. Unless you are a caviar connoisseur, you really wouldn’t be able to taste the difference.

By dega2010 — On Jul 11, 2010

@googie98: I went on a pretty fancy dinner cruise once and caviar was on the menu. Of course, I didn’t know how or what to order. I had always wanted to try caviar so I ordered some osetra. I really didn’t know what it was but I figured I would go for it. It was not good. It really is an acquired taste. The menu didn’t have the prices listed and I was very shocked when I got the bill. The price for osetra was $100 an ounce. I could have bought some nice jeans.

By googie98 — On Jul 11, 2010

@jeancastle00: Caviar is definitely an acquired taste. There are many different kinds of caviar. The better the caviar tastes, the higher the cost. To get really good caviar, you will spend around $100 an ounce. If you are trying caviar for the first time, I would go with cheaper caviar, such as lumpfish. It’s much cheaper and often used as a garnish. It is a little more salty, but still has that “caviar” taste.

By jeancastle00 — On Jul 11, 2010

I am surprised to learn that the United States was once the world's largest producer of caviar. How is caviar packaged for sale in local markets? Is it always in jars or cans? Is fresh caviar available and is it best when purchased fresh like fish? Does anyone have a suggested caviar type to try for a first time taster?

By anon342 — On Apr 22, 2007

I am looking for a machine to make beads from albumen o make similated caviar.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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