Caviar versus Roe
Roe and caviar basically refer to the same thing: fish eggs. However, the term roerefers to the fish eggs (or male fish sperm) themselves while caviar is roe that has been salted or “cured” and then placed in tins for storage and aging.
In the United States and Canada, any product that is only labeled caviar must come from sturgeon roe. If it contains the roe from any other fish, such as whitefish, it must be labeled with the name of the fish, such as whitefish roe, salmon roe, carp roe, trout roe, etc. The roe of shellfish is also used.
In Europe, however, the term caviar is reserved exclusively for the roe of sturgeon. Roe from other fish must be called caviar substitute.
The sturgeon family, or Acipenseridae, are a strange, prehistoric-looking fish which feed on the bottom. There are several species of sturgeon, and the rarest, beluga produces the largest and most prized roe, making beluga caviar the most expensive type.
Female fish produce eggs in their ovaries, which are membranous sacs. The hundreds of individual eggs are held together by connective tissues. This type of roe is called hard roe and it is the most preferred type of roe. Male fish roe, which is the sperm, is sometimes used as well, and is called soft roe or milt. It is considered a delicacy in some parts of Europe
Roe is used in may ways without separating out the individual eggs. It is sometimes sold fresh in whole form or sliced, or preserved in various forms such as salted, marinated, or smoked. It can be used to make many different products, such a roe pate. Fresh cod or haddock roes are usually eaten cooked, but most roe is eaten raw. It can sometimes be extremely expensive.
In Japan, the most popular roe is salted herring roe, called kazunoko. Crab roe from female mud crabs is a favorite in Southeast Asia. And sturgeon roe, as caviar (the original name for roe from sturgeon), is most prized in Europe.
For caviar, female roe is harvested and rinsed to remove all the membranes from the eggs. The eggs are lightly salted, pressed, and allowed to cure for a brief time before being packed into special tins. Some caviars are also pasteurized to extend their shelf-life. Russian and Iran were traditionally the main producers of caviar, using beluga, oscietra, and sveruga species of sturgeon. But the demand for caviar has caused over-fishing, and many species are almost extinct. Sturgeon, therefore, are now being farmed in France. Most fish eggs are soft and translucent, and have a salty taste and grainy texture.
The finest caviar that is readily available is probably Sevruga caviar, which is actually the third best behind Oscietra and Beluga. Beluga, the largest and finest caviar, is now illegal in some countries. Salted herring roe, lumpfish, and cod are also sold as alternatives, as well as the others named above.
What is Red Caviar?
What a certain type of caviar is called really just depends on where you are. As stated above, in America and Canada, for a caviar to be called just “caviar” it has to be sturgeon and if it’s any other fish roe the name of the fish must be noted. Whereas, in Europe, the name caviar is reserved exclusively for the roe of sturgeon and a caviar preparation made from any other roe has to be called “caviar substitute.”
In restaurants, you may find “red caviar” being served, especially as a garnish. Salmon roe is often called red caviar, but it could also be trout, or cod. This actually goes back to Russia, which, as mentioned, along with Iran was originally the biggest caviar producer. They would call sturgeon caviar black caviar and caviar from salmon, trout, or cod red caviar. Keep in mind that there is a big Jewish tradition in Russia, and black caviar is not Kosher.
How is Caviar Served?
Caviar tastes best served cold, so it is traditionally served on ice. The opened container of caviar is pressed into a bowl of crushed ice and the bowl is set on a plate or tray. Since the eggs are so delicate, it is best not to try to transfer them from the tin to another serving container. This is why it is more common to sea caviar in small tins of about 1 oz (28g) containers. Very good quality caviar is usually served as is, with toast, croutons, or blini. Sometimes, other accompaniments are also used with lesser quality caviar, such as lemon wedges, hard cooked chopped egg whites, hard cooked egg yolk, red onion, creme fraiche, or sour cream. There are special caviar spoons as well. These have small bowls and are made of ivory, bone, horn, or mother-of-pearl. Reactive metals such as silver should not be used since they will react with the caviar and impart a metallic taste. Stainless steel is considered inappropriate, even though it is non-reactive and would work perfectly well.