Trade Secrets of Fish Caviar

I’m not a big fan of caviar, whether served straight up on a tiny silver spoon or with crème fraiche on a cracker, but female members of my family love salty fish ova. I still remember how, as a toddler, my daughter Diana would stand by the hors d’oeuvr table at holiday time and plead, “cavie, cavie.”

Caviar is most commonly made from the roe of sturgeons and paddlefish, large fish that lay thousands of tiny eggs. The textural surprise following the occlusion of your teeth on caviar has often been described as “pop rocks” for adults. Flavors might include musky, briny, and even floral. Sturgeon roe can be quite expensive though, depending on the variety. According to the book, The Philosopher Fish, the finest Beluga caviar can demand as much as $500 an ounce. A local variety of caviar is available from hatchery-reared white sturgeons for a more reasonable price of around $60 per ounce.

Don’t let high prices scare you away from trying this fishy delicacy, however. A more frugal shopper might find lumpfish caviar sold at discount retailers for $2 to $4 per ounce. It’s possible that only cultured tongues can tell the difference.

There’s also ways to make your own caviar from local fishes. Depending on state of development, the roe sac, i.e., gonads or eggs, of a hen steelhead, rainbow trout, or Kokanee can be a good choice. Mountain whitefish also have small diameter roe that can be brined to proper saltiness. Numerous references made to caviar from carp and sucker roe suggest your imagination can run wild.

My wife Nancy prepared caviar from a steelhead and two mountain whitefish in mid-November. Eggs of both fishes were small, on the order of 3 mm (i.e., 1/8 inch) in diameter. There are several variations on the theme, but all start with cutting up the developing roe sac into 2-inch or so sized chunks before brining them in a salt mixture. Nancy brines her eggs for 5 to 10 minutes in a mixture of one-half cup Kosher salt to 1 quart of ice-cold water. Once they have soaked up the proper ratio of salt (She gives them the taste test after 5 minutes.), remove and rinse them with cold water. Larger eggs may require brining up to 30 minutes.

Some recipes call for rinsing with hot water to remove the attached membrane from the skein, but this procedure can also cook the eggs. I suggest you practice with a small number of eggs and a range of water temperatures from cool to warm until you get the procedure down. Nancy removes the membrane from the roe with her fingers before she places the loose roe in a glass bowl for another taste test.

Depending on the stage of development, removing the skein can be a tedious process. For example, the skein of early developing roe is more difficult to remove than more mature roe that has begun to “loosen.” After the roe has achieved the proper amount of “saltiness,” Nancy places the loose ova in a glass jar, seals, and stores in the refrigerator. Your homemade caviar can be stored in this manner for up to a week without significant loss of flavor. Don’t expect the end product to look like blackish sturgeon or lumpfish caviar. Steelhead and whitefish eggs are a glossy jewel-like orange, almost too pretty to eat.

We served three kinds of caviar as hors d’oeuvrs on Thanksgiving Day: lumpfish, steelhead, and whitefish. My wife, daughter and granddaughters lined up to reward their taste buds while us guys ate Nachos and watched football in the other room. Admittedly, I snuck in later for a taste of those ol’ fish eggs. The commercial version of lumpfish caviar was too salty for my taste, but I appreciated the “pop” of flavor that steelhead caviar provided. No doubt my ratio of cracker and crème fraiche to a tiny smear of fish eggs was higher than that of the female gender. (To kill the taste delivered to an uninformed palate?). As for whitefish caviar, my wife and daughter termed the taste as “grassy,” while I couldn’t help notice a distinct note of caddisfly larvae.

As they say, the enjoyment of caviar can be an acquired taste.