Becky Luigart-Stayner

Enjoying caviar, one of the world's most luxurious foods, doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. Here's how to select and serve with confidence.

Fish eggs. Although the prospect may sound unappealing to some,the salted roe of the female sturgeon is one of the world's mostrenowned―and expensive―luxury foods. For those who loveit, caviar is the supreme splurge, a crisp-tender bite of theocean. Others side with Tom Hanks' Big character, who spits out a mouthful of caviar.Definitely a love-it-or-hate-it kind of food.

At varying times in history, caviar has been widely availabledue to plentiful fish. The salted roe of Hudson River sturgeon, forexample, was given away with nickel glasses of beer in 19th-centuryNew York state. At other times, Russian czars, Europeanaristocrats, and others of great wealth enjoyed caviar's salinesuavity while lesser mortals had to do without.

Today those who are even modestly affluent can afford qualitycaviars―if they know what to choose. The crème de lacrème traditionally comes from Russia and Iran, from belugasturgeon caught in the Black and Caspian seas and the Sea of Azov.However, these stocks are overfished and endangered so bans are inplace to prohibit sale in the United States. One reason fordepleted numbers is that these fish don't reproduce until 25 yearsof age and only every four years. The good news is that Americanaquafarms now offer excellent, bargain-price caviars from sturgeon,whitefish, salmon, spoonfish, and others.

The best way to learn caviar is to find a good supplier and trymany varieties. So get out there and indulge!

THE BASICS
There's no need to be intimidated; here's the scoop.

The exotic names usually denote the type of fish the eggs comefrom. It's a bit like comparing Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc,without the hundreds of labels to confuse you.

Beluga is traditionally considered the best (and certainlythe most expensive) caviar. The largest of all sturgeon, beluga cantake 20-plus years to sexually mature, making their eggs the rarestkind of sturgeon roe. Beluga caviar is steel to dark-gray in color,and eggs are large―just smaller than allspice berries. Theyare rather sturdy and give a distinctive burst when pressed againstthe roof of the mouth. Avoid imported beluga sturgeon caviar andpurchase domestic varieties (see below).

Osetra caviar comes from smaller osetra sturgeon. About thesize of white peppercorns, the eggs are brownish-gray with adelicate texture and a nutty or fruity flavor. Some harder-to-findversions may be golden. Europeans often prefer osetra to belugabecause of its good taste and average price.

Sevruga caviar has an intense, almost lemony flavor. Eachsevruga egg is only slightly larger than a mustard seed. The eggs'texture is almost crisp, but not tough. Quite small, sevrugasturgeon mature in seven years, so their roe is plentiful.

Malossol simply means "little salt." While all caviar issalted, malossol is considered the highest grade of caviar becauseit has less than 5 percent salt. The term "malossol" can describethe roe of beluga, osetra, or sevruga sturgeon.

Pressed caviar is made from damaged eggs, which are pressedto extract the liquid. It has a strong flavor and "jammy" texturethat some aficionados love. Significantly less expensive than wholeeggs, pressed caviar is a bargain for those who love the delicacy'sintensity.

Pasteurized caviar has been heat-treated to make it shelfstable. The caviar's taste, consistency, and especially texturesuffer greatly from the cooking process. Use it only in recipeswhere other flavors will play an important role.

Domestic caviar is creating a buzz in the industry. Russianimports have suffered from the breakup of the Soviet Union,overfishing, and pollution. American companies now produce caviarfrom the roe of wild and farm-raised sturgeon, salmon, whitefish,and paddlefish or spoonfish.

BUYING AND SERVING
When it comes to caviar, selecting the good stuff isimportant, but so is handling and serving. Here are tips from theexperts.

Purchasing and storing. The eggs should be shiny, notcloudy, and should not smell strong. Mail-order products aregenerally shipped in coolers with several chill packs to ensurefreshness. Unopened caviar can be held for about 10 days; onceopened, it should be refrigerated and consumed within threedays.

Serving. Fine caviar is best served with plain or butteredtoast points. (To make toast points, cut good-quality, thin-slicedwhite bread into triangles. Bake at 350˚ for 8 to 10 minutes.Cool and store in zip-top bags or other airtight containers.)

Another classic way to serve caviar is with blini―tinybuckwheat pancakes―topped with a dollop of crèmefraîche or sour cream. And then there's the direct, butdistinctly costly, approach: Stick a spoon in it and starteating.

For serving size, plan on 4 ounces for four people. Opt for 2ounces if other appetizers are served.

TASTE OF THE OCEAN (legend for image above)
1) Golden Pearl Salmon
2) California Estate Osetra
3) Beet and Saffron Whitefish
4) Ginger Whitefish
5) Truffled Whitefish
6) Wasabi Whitefish

To purchase Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, visit tsarnicoulai.com.

Other great choices:
Sterling at sterlingcaviar.com
Seattle Caviar Company at caviar.com

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