Salmon roe is the eggs of the salmon fish, cured and used like other roe products, including the famous caviar of Eastern Europe and Russia. Depending on the region, it may be viewed as a delicacy, and the quality and cost of this product varies widely. As a general rule, it is less expensive than caviar, although it lacks the complex and rich flavor associated with that food. Many markets carry salmon roe in the chilled foods section and also in shelf-stable cans.
Like other forms of roe, salmon eggs are collected by harvesting female fish shortly before spawning, when they have a large and very well-developed egg mass. The eggs are cut out, allowing the rest of the fish to be processed while the roe is carefully preserved. Traditionally, roe has been salted, but it can also be preserved in brine, frozen, eaten fresh, crushed and mixed into various pates and spreads, or even dried.
As a general rule, whole roe is the most costly, because it is very difficult to keep the individual eggs whole and crisp. If the eggs become broken or crushed, they decline in value. The value is also determined by the preservation technique used, with lightly salted, chilled roe being very valuable, while heavily salted, compressed cakes are much cheaper. Flavor, of course, is also a factor, as handling roe requires a delicate hand.
In Japan, salmon roe is known as ikura. In other regions of the world, it is often called “salmon caviar,” to enforce the similarities between salmon and sturgeon roe, the original caviar. It can be used in a wide variety of ways, ranging from a garnish on sushi to an inclusion on a buffet with crackers and other spreads. It is traditionally eaten cold and often plain to allow the natural flavors of the roe to come through. Generally, heating it is not advised, as it can compromise the flavor.
When purchasing high-quality salmon roe, it's best if consumers can taste the roe first. The individual eggs should crack open with a crisp “pop” when pressed against the roof of the mouth, and the roe should have a faintly salty, slightly fishy flavor with a thin sheen of oil that does not become overwhelming in the mouth. Greasy, soft roe is an inferior product, and it should be rejected. People who purchase packaged roe that turns out to be of low quality should return it for a replacement.