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What is caviar? A seafood expert breaks down all the details

John McDonald of Mercer Street Hospitality and Hancock St. is here to guide us

The caviar at Hancock St. with potato chips and champagne
Hancock St.

What is caviar? Caviar, which is deemed to be the pinnacle of luxury by many, has been a dining delicacy since the times of ancient Greece. Derived from the Persian word chav-jar, which means “cake of strength,” this black gold was integrated into modern-day popularity by Russian royalty.

Albeit a simple fare made from sturgeon roe, the inherently classy caviar can also be intimidating. But caviar is also having a reconnaissance, and for those ready to indulge in this expensive fish egg appetizer, we’ve collected the expertise of John McDonald, founder of Mercer Street Hospitality’s Hancock St. With an affordable and approachable caviar service at Hancock St., McDonald is more than happy to share his caviar expertise.

Types of caviar

Roe (left) and caviar (right).
Blanchi Costela / Getty Images

Caviar is eggs or roe collected from the sturgeon family of the best fish, traditionally sourced from the Caspian and the Black Sea. Although all female fish lay eggs, only sturgeon eggs are considered caviar. Other forms of fish eggs like salmon, trout, and flying fish are “roe” and are a popular and affordable alternative to caviar. And while the highest quality and most famous caviar is produced in Russia and Iran, America actually has its own domestic caviar farms.

There are three main varieties of sturgeon caviar, each varying in price, taste, and quality. Caviar is also graded based on the size, texture, and flavor of the eggs.

Grade 1: Firm, large, uniform eggs (more expensive).
Grade 2: Less delicate and less uniform eggs (less expensive)

Beluga

The rarest and most expensive caviar is noted for its large light-gray, pea-sized pearls with a buttery, creamy, nutty flavor and unique full-flavored aftertaste. Due to the decline in the wild Beluga population, this caviar is closely regulated, which has resulted in its high price and rarity.

Ossetra

Ossetra is the most popular caviar in the world, known for its rich, nutty, briny flavor and firm, juicy, deep brown to gold pearls. While still expensive, it is the most affordable high-end caviar on the market.

Sevruga

The most common and affordable caviar varietals, sevruga is said to have the most intense and rich flavor. With small, clear pearls and pale-grey juicy insides, this caviar has a smooth, buttery flavor and a fresh, clean finish.

Other caviar types

Several other types of caviar are available in addition to the three classic types described above.

  • Sterlet caviar: This caviar comes from the sterlet sturgeon, the smallest of the sturgeon species. It has small, light-colored eggs and a delicate flavor.
  • Kaluga hybrid caviar: A hybrid of beluga and kaluga sturgeon, it has large, light-colored eggs with a mild, nutty flavor. Kaluga hybrid caviar is a more affordable alternative to Beluga caviar.
  • American white sturgeon caviar: As the name suggests, this variety comes from the American white sturgeon, which is a native fish to North America. This caviar has medium-sized, light-colored eggs with a mild, buttery flavor.
  • Salmon roe: Though not technically caviar, salmon roe is sometimes referred to as such. This option is much more affordable than true caviar and has a milder flavor.
  • Trout roe: Similar to salmon roe, trout roe is not technically caviar, either, but it’s often included in the caviar category. It is typically less expensive than true caviar and has a mild, fishy flavor.

Serving caviar

Hancock St. caviar surrounded by other dishes.
hancockstreet / Instagram

Caviar is best enjoyed alone, right off a spoon. Caviar is classically served on a bed of ice with a caviar spoon made of ceramic, glass, or mother-of-pearl. Non-metallic utensils should be avoided as they can tint the natural flavor of caviar. However, caviar is also delicious when paired with an array of accompaniments.

“For an exquisite caviar experience, I recommend the following serving suggestion,” McDonald said. “Start with toasted brioche, which provides a delightful crunch and buttery flavor. On top of the brioche, spread a thin layer of crème fraîche to add a creamy and tangy element. Finally, generously layer the caviar on the crème fraîche, allowing its rich and briny flavors to shine. The combination of the toasted brioche, creamy crème fraîche, and decadent caviar creates a perfect balance of textures and flavors.”

Pasta and scrambled eggs are two other foods that go fantastically with caviar, giving them an intense flavor and luxurious texture. The creaminess of the eggs complements the briny caviar, making it a stellar breakfast for a special occasion.

McDonald does have another suggestion, though, one that is less common.

“While it may not be considered conventional,” McDonald commented, “one unexpected pairing idea is to scoop caviar onto a Pringle chip and take a single bite. This unconventional combination offers a playful contrast between the crispy chip and the delicate burst of flavor from the caviar. It’s a unique and surprising way to enjoy caviar, providing an unexpected twist to your taste buds.”

If you’re looking for the best drinks to sip alongside your caviar, there are plenty of excellent options. Traditionally, caviar is paired with premium frozen Russian vodka. The vodka’s lightness brings out the caviar’s distinct salty sea flavors. Champagne and martinis (non-fruit-based) are also classic drinks for caviar.

“Champagne’s effervescence and crispness complement the richness of caviar exceptionally well, enhancing its flavors,” McDonald explained. “Classic martinis, with their clean and dry profile, also provide a sophisticated and balanced accompaniment to caviar. While specific cocktails may vary depending on the menu, a traditional martini or a champagne-based cocktail would be a safe and enjoyable choice to savor alongside caviar.”

Storing caviar

Hancock St. caviar.
hancockstreet / Instagram

Caviar, like most seafood dishes is best eaten fresh, and a tin of it should be eaten soon after opening. Opened caviar should be tightly resealed and stored in the coldest part of the fridge for up to three days. Unopened caviar can be refrigerated for about two weeks.

Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, editor, and NYU graduate. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
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