Caviar Types and Varieties 

A Concise Caviar Guide

Caviar is processed, salted fish roe, eggs. There are several caviar types and many varieties of fish that contribute to this ancient gourmet treat.

True caviar, gourmet caviar, however, comes from sturgeon only, primarily Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga sturgeons. Every species of sturgeon, however, is on the endangered species list. The largest remaining deposit of sturgeon is in the Caspian Sea, shared by Russian and Iranian producers, where 85% of today's wild caviar originates.

Caviar from any other source than sturgeon must be designated by the fish it comes from, such as 'salmon caviar' or 'paddlefish caviar.' If it just says 'caviar' on the container, it's from sturgeon, or should be.

How Caviar is Rated

Fine caviar is rated according to...

  • the size and colour of its roe
  • its method of processing
  • Colour is designated by...
  • 000 for light caviar
  • 00 for medium
  • 0 for dark

Very light or golden roe is also designated 'Imperial' caviar or 'Royal' caviar, and was once reserved only for royalty.

The best caviar is commonly understood to be sturgeon caviar, with the largest roe and the lightest colour. This thinking is changing, though, as more people discover the delicious and less expensive alternatives to wild sturgeon that are available. Indeed, expensive caviars are not priced by taste, but rarity. The "best tasting caviar" is up to you.

Caviar Types

There are 4 caviar types, that is, four processing methods.

First is the Malossol method, preferred by connoisseurs. Malossol means 'little salt' or 'lightly salted' and refers to fresh caviar with less than 5% salt. Modern fresh caviar often has much less, about 3.5%. The term is sometimes used to describe any high quality caviar, though.

The second caviar type and quality is Salted Caviar, sometimes called 'semi-preserved' caviar. It contains up to 8% salt. The more salt, the longer the shelf life, but taste may be compromised.

Pressed Caviar is next in quality. Made from too-soft, damaged, broken and overly ripe eggs, it is treated, highly salted, and pressed to a jam-like consistency. Once the only method available for preserving caviar, this is still the favorite of many connoisseurs for its strong, concentrated flavor.

The last of the caviar types is Pasteurized Caviar. Fresh caviar is heat-treated and vacuum packed in glass jars for much longer preservation. Both taste and texture may be affected.

Varieties of Caviar

Black Caviar

Beluga Caviar

Beluga is the world's most expensive caviar, next to exceedingly rare Sterlet. Its roe is very large, ranging in colour from black to pale grey, and has a smooth, buttery flavour.

Fewer than 100 Beluga sturgeon are caught each year.

Osetra Caviar

Also spelled, Ossetra, Oscietra, or Asestra. This caviar consists of medium-sized eggs, ranging in colour from dark brown to light grey and even golden brown. Many prefer Osetra's nutty, slightly fruity flavour over Beluga.

Sevruga Caviar

The Sevruga sturgeon produces the smallest roe of the three main caviar varieties. More plentiful than the other two, it is also the least expensive. Its roe is black to very light grey in colour and, like Beluga, it has a buttery flavour, but saltier, richer, and more intense. It's unique flavour is highly valued.

Tasty, Less Expensive Alternatives

Farmed Caviar Few realize that the United States used to produce about 90% of the world's caviar. It was so plentiful that it was served in saloons like pretzels are today. As supply dwindled, however, so did production. The U.S. and more than a dozen other countries in similar circumstances have begun sturgeon farming operations to preserve both the species and the industry. Commonly farmed varieties are Osetra, Baerii, and White Sturgeon.

People should live as well as farm-raised sturgeon. They swim in artesian well water, are fed the ideal, toxin-free diet, and have no predators. Of course, they do give their all for the cause in the end. Their roe is harvested at the ideal time for premium quality caviar. For consumers it all means a consistently high quality, lower-priced caviar, not from endangered stock. Try it.

American Caviar

Sometimes misleadingly used to refer to any caviar from America, it actually refers to American lake sturgeon as opposed to Caspian Sea sturgeon. (There's an old story in my family about a fisherman, a small fishing boat, a sturgeon, and a long, long ride up and down the river.) Its roe is very similar in characteristics to Caspian Sevruga caviar.

Paddlefish Caviar

With its clear, glossy beads, buttery flavour, and steel grey to light or even golden-grey roe, this is a good substitute for Beluga caviar. It is sometimes marketed as American caviar.

Hackleback Caviar

This caviar combines the sweet, nutty, and buttery characteristics of other caviar. Its roe is a rich, glossy black colour of medium size, firm.

Bowfin Caviar

This caviar, more commonly known by its Cajun name, Chou piqué, is considered another of the better substitutes for Beluga. It has a distinctively sturgeon essence, with a mild flavour and firm, black beads, although smaller in size than Beluga.

Salmon Caviar

This bright golden-orange or reddish-orange caviar is the favourite of sushi chefs everywhere. Its juicy medium to large sized roe, even larger than Beluga, has a distinctive popping characteristic in the mouth and a fairly intense salmon flavour. And because salmon have scales, salmon caviar is considered a kosher food.

Whitefish Caviar

This is small-grained, almost crunchy caviar of the salmon family, with a distinctive natural golden colour and mild flavours. Another favourite of chefs, Whitefish roe is sometimes infused with ginger, truffle or saffron flavours for added interest.

Trout Caviar

This is interesting caviar, said to be good enough to eat off the spoon. It has large, golden-orange beads and a subtle flavour. It has a nice 'pop' like salmon roes.

Lumpfish Caviar

This is a very inexpensive yet versatile caviar from cold, Nordic waters, surprisingly good-tasting. It has a very fine-grained, crunchy roe and intense briny flavour that is ideal for appetisers and garnishes. It comes in black and red, and is one of the pasteurised caviar types.

(Some caviar's are dyed a uniform colour; be sure to gently rinse these before using in a recipe.)

Capelin Caviar

A tiny-grained roe similar to lumpfish, but chewy. Choose red or black varieties. This one is also pasteurized and artificially coloured.