What Is Caviar and Why Is It So Expensive?

Picture a fancy party. There are the top hats, the monocles, the tower of Champagne coupes, and, of course, the caviar. There is perhaps no food more synonymous with luxury than caviar. The mere mention of it raises pinkies! But, what is caviar exactly? Today, we’ll take a look at this delicacy of the deep, and hopefully learn a little bit more about what makes this stuff so darn expensive!

What is caviar made of?

Caviar is fish eggs aka fish roe—and it has to be unfertilized fish eggs. This roe is cured with salt. And that’s what caviar is made of.  

What fish is caviar from?

While all fish eggs are roe, true caviar comes from sturgeon, which belong to the Acipenseridae family and look a lot like something that used to swim with dinosaurs (because it did). There are 27 different types of caviar-producing sturgeon, such as beluga, kaluga, and osetra. If those names sound familiar, that’s because different types of caviar are named for the type of sturgeon from which they are harvested. 

Where does caviar come from?

Traditionally, caviar comes from wild sturgeon in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea. But these days you can get caviar from other places. Northern California, in particular, is becoming a hot spot for sustainably produced caviar

What color is caviar?

Caviar can come in many different colors, depending on the species of sturgeon. It can range in color from black, to brown, to gray, to gold. Ah, a beautiful caviar rainbow! 

What does caviar taste like?

Most caviar has a briny saltiness accompanied by a mild fishy taste. It’s almost like oily, buttery, umami, spherical ocean water. True caviar has a very distinct flavor that, honestly, is hard to describe. You just gotta taste it for yourself. 

Why is caviar so expensive?

Fish roe isn’t expensive. You can get a jar of tobiko (the stuff on your sushi roll) or even salmon roe for less than $20. But caviar is anything but cheap. According to Global Seafoods, osetra caviar can range from $50 to $500 per ounce! But why is caviar so expensive? It’s not just because it’s delicious. It’s also because the process is time intensive and specialized, and because of the (sadly) declining wild sturgeon population. Sturgeon have experienced declining numbers due to overfishing and habitat destruction. But efforts are being made to reverse that decline. In 2006, the U.N. banned countries from exporting wild beluga caviar in an effort to preserve the fish. In the U.S., the only legal caviar is farmed caviar. 

But even with farmed fish, you can’t produce an endless supply of caviar. It takes female sturgeon up to 20 years to reach sexual, egg-producing maturity. And after that, producers need to extract the roe by hand. Traditionally this is done by killing the fish. But these days, some producers choose to keep their fish alive. They extract the roe by injecting the fish with a hormone that lets the farmers remove the eggs by pressing on their bellies. No one said luxury was pretty. 

How to serve caviar?

Though there is no cut-and-dry law for how to serve caviar, it is highly suggested that the can or jar be served on a bed of crushed ice. That will help ensure it’s eaten at the right temperature. Nobody wants warm fish eggs, that’s how they hatch! (Just joking, as we learned, caviar eggs are unfertilized.) 

How to eat caviar?

If you want to enjoy caviar in its purest form, you can put a spoonful right on your hand and eat it. If you want a little something else, you can dollop some onto a blini (a tiny Russian pancake) with some creme fraiche. Caviar is also good on tiny potatoes or baked potatoes or scrambled eggs. But heck, if you’re paying for it, you can eat it however you dang well please. 

How long does caviar last?

If kept in an unopened, vacuum-sealed container in a household refrigerator, most caviar lasts four to six weeks. However, when set out at a party, caviar won’t last long. That said, if you do happen to end up with leftovers, be sure to refrigerate the jar and enjoy within a few days. 

About the Author

Joe Rumrill

Joe Rumrill is a fictional one-eyed spinach-loving sailor created in 1929 by E.C Se- Wait, no, that's not right... Joe Rumrill is a stand up comedian and writer currently based in Los Angeles. His favorite thing about food is a close tie between the taste and the nutrients one gets from it. His least favorite thing about it is the "gritty, dirt-like quality some food has", but he's most likely referring to the time in third grade he was dared to eat playground sand.

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