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Kitchen Notes: Caviar
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Cooking For Engineers



Joined: 10 May 2005
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PostPosted: Fri Jan 20, 2006 2:03 am    Post subject: Kitchen Notes: Caviar Reply with quote


Article Digest:
In October 2005, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the importing of Beluga caviar from the Black Sea basin. This ban, along with a ban in September 2005 of Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea, effectively cuts off the supply of Beluga caviar to the United States. Then, in January 2006, the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) temporarily banned the international trade of beluga caviar. These decisions were reached in an attempt to help conserve the dwindling population of Beluga sturgeon, an endangered species. In this article, we examine some of the different kinds of caviar and examine some of the issues surrounding this luxury food.

Caviar is the prepared (usually by lightly salting) roe of the sturgeon family (Acipenseridae) of fish. There are less than thirty species of sturgeon - any of whose roe can be considered to be caviar. (Caviar from other fish are available, but are always preceded by the name of the fish from which the roe was collected.) The roe of the sturgeon is typically collected by catching the sturgeon with nets, clubbing the fish to stun it, and cutting the belly open to scoop out the eggs. A few rare operations will carefully extract the eggs while leaving the ovaries intact and the fish in a state which it can recover from (but these are generally not found around the Caspian Sea region). The eggs are then washed, strained, salted, and packed into vacuum sealed tins for transport and sale.

Of all the species of sturgeon, three are most famous: Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga. All three of these species live in the Caspian Sea and are generally fished by Russian or Iranian fisheries.

Beluga caviar is harvested from the beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) and has nothing to do with the Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas), an arctic marine mammal (also known as the white whale or beluga whale). The Beluga sturgeon is currently the most sought after (and most expensive) of all caviars. The beluga sturgeon is large (up to 30 feet [9 m] in length and over a ton [900 kg]) and long-lived (up to 100 years). Unfortunately, their long life span and late maturing make them especially susceptible to the effects of pollution. Beluga caviar is composed of large (pea-sized), gray eggs. In general, the lighter the color, the more expensive. The grades are: O (darkest color), OO (medium toned), and OOO (lightest color). The OOO grade is the most expensive and is sometimes referred to as "royal caviar". The texture of the caviar is often described as rich and silky.

Osetra caviar (sometimes spelled ossetra or asetra) is harvested from the Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) and sometimes the Persian sturgeon (Acipenser persicus). Osetra caviar is also highly prized and fairly rare. The eggs are smaller than the beluga caviar and the color can range from brownish gray to golden. The taste is generally described as nutty and strong.

Sevruga caviar is harvested from starry or stellate sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus). These eggs are small and dark gray in color. This is the most common (and least expensive) caviar from the Caspian Sea and Black Sea region.

Because of over fishing, the destruction of spawning sites, and pollution, supplies of these three caviars have begun to dwindle and prices have sky rocketed. With the recent bans, beluga caviar may no longer be available at all. To fill this void, several "new" caviars have been introduced:
Farm raised Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii), white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), and American hackleback sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorhynchus, usually called shovelnose sturgeon). The roe of black paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), although not a sturgeon, is also becoming more available.

Of these, the Siberian caviars, the quality and taste generally approach that of Osetra caviar - and these caviars are commonly, misleadingly, labeled as osetra. White sturgeon can also approach the quality of osetra, but is sometimes tainted with a muddy flavor. The American hackleback caviar is generally not has highly regarded but is may be an excellent roe for use in cooking due to its much lower cost.

Misleading labeling
As mentioned earlier, not all osetra caviar is osetra caviar. In addition, caviar labeled as Russian probably isn't (at least outside of Russian). Russia has not had international approval to export for the last couple years. Most likely, the caviar is old, black market, or from Azerbaijan.

Although the white sturgeon is indigenous to California and the Pacific Northwest, caviar labeled "American sturgeon" may contain white sturgeon, American hackleback, or paddlefish roe. What's the easiest way to tell? If it's relatively inexpensive, it's probably not white sturgeon.

Consumption
High quality caviar is often consumed as is to experience the full flavor and texture of the roe. Caviar service is performed with a plastic (which may be the perfect utensil, but probably seems cheap and ruins the atmosphere considering how much the caviar cost), wood, mother-of-pearl, or even gold utensils. The use stainless steel or silver will taint the flavor. Caviar is also used to top unsalted crackers or toast, on salads, or even as a stuffing. Some caviar is also used as a stuffing in various cooked dishes, but this is probably not the best use of your money.

Shelf Life
Caviar should be consumed on the same day that the tin is opened. Whenever possible the caviar should be kept cold over crushed ice. If the caviar cannot be consumed in the first day, flatten the caviar in the tin and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap. Gently press the plastic wrap down over the caviar to remove air pockets and store in the refrigerator surrounded by crushed ice.

Unopened containers of fresh caviar should also be stored in the refrigerator with crushed ice. Stored in this manner, the caviar should last two to three weeks. Unopened pasteurized caviar tins typically hold for six months on the shelf.

Freezing caviar should be avoided because it may alter the taste and texture of the roe. If caviar has been frozen, slowly (very slowly) return it to a thawed state by keeping it in the refrigerator over ice for a day or two.


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Michael Chu



Joined: 10 May 2005
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Location: Austin, TX (USA)

PostPosted: Fri Jan 20, 2006 2:12 am    Post subject: Prices Reply with quote

I was reluctant to discuss caviar prices in the article because the prices can change so rapidly and vary up to 20% from source to source. Prices can vary even more depending on location and internet shopping is somewhat unreliable unless you purchase from the caviar producer's website. In addition, due to the perishable nature of caviar, mail ordering requires paying for overnight delivery.

At this time, if you live in a metropolitan area and can find a place to buy fresh caviar expect to pay:
Osetra - $70 to $100 per ounce (28 g)
Siberian Sturgeon - $50 to $90 per ounce
White Sturgeon - $45 to $70 per ounce
American hackleback - $10 to $30 per ounce

Also, it should be noted that it is not necessarily the case that the more expensive brands are better than the lower cost brands.

UPDATE (April 2007): A company called AffordableCaviar.com is selling inexpensive caviar at prices significantly lower than average. This is potentially a great place to buy an 8-ounce (1/2 pound!) Sampler for $115. You won't be getting any osetra or sevruga caviar from this source, but you'll be able to get your hands on hackleback sturgeon caviar, paddlefish roe, salmon roe, and other fish roe that could work for you as an acceptable caviar substitute without the worries of overfishing and poor working conditions.


Last edited by Michael Chu on Wed Apr 18, 2007 5:36 pm; edited 1 time in total
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CAntony
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 22, 2006 4:49 am    Post subject: Thanks! Reply with quote

That was very helpful and interesting.
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Aaron
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 22, 2006 4:54 pm    Post subject: Almas Reply with quote

You forgot to mention ALMAS caviar, possible the most expensive food on this planet. http://www.nvogue.com/nVogueFoods/Caviar/caviarguide.htm
Love your blog!
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Ben Brockert
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2006 4:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

But what does it taste like?
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 4:45 am    Post subject: Caviar - food for thought Reply with quote

I thought this article was very appropriate. It made me rethink how food arrives at my table, an essential journey for every discerning cook.

The Caviar Kings
From the NOV 2003 issue of Seed:


Like nearly every other luxury in the world, caviar is tinged with hues of danger. It has the reek of gangsters and the taste of a dying species. Now, with exclusive access to multiple federal investigations, Simon Cooper reveals just how far greed will take those who seek Russia’s black gold.

If you would abolish avarice, you must abolish its mother, luxury.—Cicero

EARLY FALL 1998—CASPIAN SEA

In a small fishing camp tucked behind the reeds guarding the shores of the Caspian Sea, a poacher prepares to process his catch. In the gunnels of his boat is a thick, writhing carpet of sturgeon, living dinosaurs that have swum the waters of the great blue earth for more than 250 million years. The poacher selects a fat female. She is about four feet long and swollen with eggs. He hits her hard with a plank of wood—not hard enough to kill, but enough to stun. Blood trickles from her eyeballs, mouth, and gills. Quickly, the poacher rolls her over, slits open her belly, reaches inside, and carefully extracts a plump, gray-black sac about the size of a pillow. He puts the egg sac into a large plastic bucket and throws the eviscerated fish on the ground, where she flaps and thrashes, her abdomen gaping, until she succumbs and dies. Later he will butcher her for meat.

(see link above for more of the article - a very absorbing 13 pages long)
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PostPosted: Thu Jan 26, 2006 11:17 pm    Post subject: Lumpfish "Caviar" Reply with quote

Easily available in our local grocery stores is "Lumpfish Caviar" which comes in at about CDN$4 per 50g. Obviously, not in the same league as the big guys.

My question is: How does it compare? As I've never had the expensive fare, I'm curious to know what similarities or differences it would have to "real" caviar.

Thanks!
--- Doug
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FranksPlace2



Joined: 08 Aug 2005
Posts: 16

PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2006 6:37 pm    Post subject: No sympathy Reply with quote

I have travelled the world and eaten a diverse collection of foods with no sign of allergies. However at a fancy reataurant in Warsaw, Poland I found out I was allergic to caviar. When I write this on medical forms, people just laugh at me.

Thank you for the information.

Frank
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Chef Jim



Joined: 13 May 2005
Posts: 6
Location: Metro New York

PostPosted: Thu Feb 16, 2006 1:32 pm    Post subject: Lumpfish "Caviar" Reply with quote

Comparing it to the good stuff is like calling Sparkling Cider--Champagne! Wink
Right Church, wrong Pew! Big smile
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A.
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 20, 2006 8:43 pm    Post subject: Peasant Luxuries. Reply with quote

The ebbs and flows of history made this old peasant food a luxury item (as often happens when those with more money notice those with less enjoying themselves).

Once upon a time, peasants and workers couldn't keep the fish, those were for the nobility. So the fishermen stole the eggs, which seemed harmless enough at the time, and sent the fish to their "rightul consumers".

Things will change, as they always do.
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B'gina
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 13, 2006 8:01 am    Post subject: Caviare Reply with quote

Probably doesn't have too much to do with this, but when I lived in Baltimore, I used to use a Russian deli for things like this. He went to NYC every week and, if I preordered, would come back with however much caviare I wanted, the good stuff, at a greatly reduced price, because the eggs were not perfect. For someone who adores caviare, that was not an issue. I like the pop of the eggs on my tongue as much as the next guy, but if some of the eggs are crushed, but I'm paying $50 for a pound, who cares? It was also satisfactory for use in dishes where the eggs would not be on display. Now that it's harder to come by, I wonder if it's still available this way.
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Maman
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 15, 2006 3:21 am    Post subject: Illinois Sturgeon Reply with quote

In Chicago, we can get roe from Illinois sturgeon (not sure if location is important for the name caviar or the fish of origin) at the Fish Guy on Elston Avenue http://www.fishguy.com/. It is an amazing substitute for Caspian caviar...
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EngineeringProfessor



Joined: 07 Sep 2006
Posts: 77

PostPosted: Sun Sep 17, 2006 3:28 am    Post subject: Re: Prices Reply with quote

Michael Chu wrote:
I was reluctant to discuss caviar prices in the article because the prices can change so rapidly and vary up to 20% from source to source. Prices can vary even more depending on location and internet shopping is somewhat unreliable unless you purchase from the caviar producer's website. In addition, due to the perishable nature of caviar, mail ordering requires paying for overnight delivery.


Caviar is one of those things where common sense (hopefully a trait of engineers in general) can rapidly give way to nonsense. If you have more money than sense, than by all means experiment.

An alternative is simply to go for something that tastes great and is quite inexpensive (around $2 an ounce as opposed to the ludicrous amounts for the Balck Sea type caviars). I am referring to "Tobiko", or flying fish roe. You can read about it here. Not endangered, great flavor that is never "fishy", crunchy texture, not at all salty.
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Michael Chu



Joined: 10 May 2005
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Location: Austin, TX (USA)

PostPosted: Sun Sep 17, 2006 7:57 am    Post subject: Re: Prices Reply with quote

EngineeringProfessor wrote:
An alternative is simply to go for something that tastes great and is quite inexpensive (around $2 an ounce as opposed to the ludicrous amounts for the Balck Sea type caviars). I am referring to "Tobiko", or flying fish roe. You can read about it here. Not endangered, great flavor that is never "fishy", crunchy texture, not at all salty.

I too love tobiko. Great texture, excellent taste (and seemingly great quality control since every batch tastes about the same). Unfortunately, it doesn't really taste much like caviar and certainly has the wrong texture.
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EngineeringProfessor



Joined: 07 Sep 2006
Posts: 77

PostPosted: Mon Sep 18, 2006 2:40 am    Post subject: Re: Prices Reply with quote

Michael Chu wrote:

I too love tobiko. Great texture, excellent taste (and seemingly great quality control since every batch tastes about the same). Unfortunately, it doesn't really taste much like caviar and certainly has the wrong texture.


This only holds if you insist that the definition of caviar is restricted to Sturgeon roe. Of course, that rapidly collapses when one considers all the different sub-species of the fish and the simple fact that some of them produce awful tasting roe. So, under that geas, your "doesn't really taste much like caviar" is somewhat specious.

Likewise, what Tobiko does not taste like is what many consider traditional caviar, which is actually an advantage to many palates. As for the "wrong texture", I think you will agree that a subjective opinion, which that is, has no place in engineering.
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