Part of the appeal of caviar is the distinctive packaging and the aesthetic intrigue of the product itself. We know it’s only fish eggs, but the way it’s presented makes it so much more.
The truth is that the caviar production process is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and highly prone to error, which is why the price-per-gram is so high compared to other fish roe.
Today we’re going to walk you through how caviar is made, step by step, and explain why it is part science, part engineering, and part artistry.
The Right Fish for the Job
You may hear the term “caviar” thrown around a bit too generously in the specialty food scene because everyone wants to capitalize on the prestigious reputation of this product.
In truth, caviar only refers to the eggs of the sturgeon, a fish with 27 different species within the Acipenser family.
These animals are large, majestic creatures that have been fished heavily for thousands of years, bringing many types to the verge of extinction and increasing their value as a result.
The most common sturgeon farmed for caviar purposes are Beluga, Kaluga, Amur, Siberian, Sterlet, Starry, white sturgeon, and Shovelnose. Each one yields eggs with distinctive shapes, sizes, textures, and tastes, and species will largely determine the caviar’s market value.
To deliver unique experiences to customers, producers will cross-breed different sturgeons and market their products in new ways. Therefore, there are thousands of distinct and original caviar varieties on the planet, and likely many more to come.
Environment is Important
For hundreds of years, it has been a mad dash for sturgeon worldwide, as fishermen have pursued these fish with gold-rush intensity and varying degrees of legality.
From the basins of the Black Sea and the Caspian to the rivers of the Mississippi in the southern United States and along the West Coast as well, the sturgeon has been heavily targeted in its natural environments.
It was not long before the most prized sturgeon species were officially overfished and depleted, resulting in several government interventions and regulations surrounding the fish.
As the 20th century saw increased demand for caviar despite diminished natural resources, farmers began to experiment in the sciences of aquaculture, sustainably farming sturgeon to yield quality caviar and employing more humane practices.
Aquaculture aims to mimic the natural environment of the sturgeon to the greatest possible extent, allowing the fish to mature, breed, and sustainably provide healthy eggs. The water’s salinity, temperature, and alkalinity all play a role here.
When aquaculturists set up their fisheries, they must consider the unique specifications of the species they are cultivating, deal with crowded conditions, and ensure ideal feeding habits.
Raising sturgeon to yield quality caviar is a far more delicate and complex process than simply farming fish to be killed and shipped off to the grocery.
Nowadays, aquaculture practices are almost universal, and farmers worldwide are doing a fine job of keeping sturgeon populations high to meet the demands of the public at reasonable prices. While some illegal poaching and black market activity do still occur, the industry has certainly found a sweet spot that did not exist before the 21st century.
2 Main Methods of Harvesting
With a basic understanding of aquaculture, we can begin to examine the actual harvesting techniques that caviar producers use to get those pearly eggs from the belly of the beast and onto the spoons of customers.
The first principle of caviar harvesting is timing, and going just one or two days off schedule can result in a product that completely misses the mark in terms of quality.
The key is to extract the eggs from the female three days before she is ready to spawn, no sooner and no later.
At this stage, the eggs are well developed and do not have excessive amounts of fat on the surface. They have a strong exterior that delivers the desirable “pop” effect that customers crave. While flavors may not be drastically different, the texture will tell all. Mushy caviar is likely the result of a mistimed harvest.
To obtain the freshest possible caviar, the sturgeon must be quickly neutralized and split open. Large roe sacks are then stripped from the interior of the fish in a fast yet precise manner to ensure that eggs are kept intact.
From there, the roe sacks are manually rubbed across a specially-designed mesh screen, which is meant to separate the eggs from the membrane and other impurities. This is a hands-on process requiring a lot of training and experience, which only adds to the costliness of caviar.
While breeding, farming, and aquaculture techniques have improved drastically over the centuries, the actual caviar harvest process has not changed in any significant way.
For centuries, this has been the universal approach used to harvest caviar. The kill is quick and considered humane by most in the industry, although some producers have introduced harvesting methods that keep the sturgeon alive for much longer.
There are sustainability advantages to techniques such as milking, and some farmers do some variation of a C-Section to extract the eggs safely and allow sturgeons to continue living.
It is still up for debate whether these newer methods have a discernible impact on the quality of the final product, or if it truly provides a better quality of life for the fish.
For now, we are satisfied with the progress made in the industry to simply keep the sturgeon population high and ensure that they grow fully and live quality lives before they end.
Salting, Grading, Packaging, and More
Once the delicate harvest process is complete and the undesirable bits have been extracted from the eggs, they are rinsed with cold water and salted to the desired effect.
Even a little bit of salt serves to tighten up the cells of the egg’s exterior, giving them extra strength and helping to bring out the natural flavors within.
Lightly salted caviar is called “malossol” and contains no more than 5 percent salt. Most top-notch products these days contain only around 3 percent salt, putting the real flavors of the caviar on full display. In general, the higher quality the caviar, the less salt you want to mask the real taste, which is why we typically opt for malossol when available.
Once salted properly, caviar is categorized into one of two grades. Grade 1 caviar must feature fully intact eggs, with visual indicators of quality such as fine color and a glossy sheen. While grade 2 caviar is usually equal in flavor, it does not have the same aesthetic appeal as grade 1 and is therefore sold at a slightly lower price.
Eggs that do not pass the test are still packaged and sold in different forms, such as cured blocks of caviar that are meant to be shaved over plates of pasta, or caviar powders that pack a lot of flavor at a much lower price.
It is important that unpasteurized caviar is kept very cold and shipped quickly to the customer or the purveyor. It usually takes less than a month for the product to begin to turn. The fresher, the better when it comes to caviar of all kinds!
Caviar production is often shrouded in mystery, and each producer has its secrets. However, this general outline of the process gives you a good idea of how it happens from start to finish.
Check out our FAQ page to read more about our distinct caviar offerings and the best way to enjoy this international delicacy at home.