Salmon roe is a common topping on sushi and can even be eaten on its own, with many folks claiming it to be caviar. But is salmon roe really caviar, or something different ? After all, salmon roe is like any other roe – unfertilized, raw fish eggs. Very similar to chicken eggs, in a way.
It turns out caviar is a very specific food, a delicacy even. It goes back to eh Persian Empire and is very expensive. So let’s see if salmon roe does qualify as caviar or not.
Is salmon roe caviar ?
No, salmon roe is not caviar, simply because true caviar is roe harvested from the Acipenseridae family (Sturgeon fish), and nothing else. Both sturgeon and salmon produce roe, as they are fish, but there are distinct differences between the eggs.
Salmon roe is a beautiful orange-red, while sturgeon roe is pure black. The salmon roe is also much larger than the dainty black eggs of the sturgeon fish. There are knock-off caviars as well, that are still black (or dyed black) and very small, but are not in fact sturgeon roe.
What is caviar ?
Caviar is a very old delicacy, dating back to the Persian Empire. The name is derived from ancient Persian, meaning ‘egg-bearing’. The eggs are not fertilized, so they will never hatch. The eggs are harvested, and the cured in salt and packaged into small tins or jars. Caviar is a very strong flavor with a delicate texture, so a little goes a long way.
The traditional method of extracting caviar implied killing the fish, but nowadays the methods are more humane, such as a C-section or something very similar to a birth.
We’ll explain all of this in a minute, starting with the traditional and most common method. But first we need to explain what caviar really is, and why it’s so precious.
Sturgeon roe is very delicate
Sturgeon roe is very delicate, and it can take up to 10 years for a sturgeon to fully mature, enough to finally lay her eggs. This means that each female sturgeon becomes a precious animal, at least for the caviar producers.
The traditional method of extracting the roe ensures the eggs are safe, edible, have the right texture, and can be handled with ease. The humane method, while preserving the female, can degrade the quality of the caviar and involves more care and expenses (source). Not all farmers are willing to use these methods.
Okay but why is sturgeon roe so delicate ? The moment the unfertilized roe exits the female and touches the water, their structure and flavor changes, and they’re no longer good. The only way these eggs can survive in water is by being fertilized, which does not make caviar.
So whatever method of extraction is used, great care must be taken and the eggs kept away from the swimming water. Now let’s take a look at that extraction.
Extracting caviar is not easy
The first and simplest method involves killing the sturgeon, as both the roe and the meat can be used afterwards. While it sacrifices the fish, it preserves the quality of the eggs. The sturgeon is lowered into colder water, rendering it unconscious before sacrificing, so no stress hormones are released.
The humane methods involve more care, and the fish survives. The first is a C-section method, after which the fish is sewn up, bandaged, and left to rest. This method needs to be done with lots of care, since it can seriously damage the reproductive organs of the sturgeon.
The second humane method involves letting the sturgeon come nearly ‘to term’, ready to release the eggs. It is then injected with a birth-inducing hormone, despite the roe being unfertilized.
The sturgeon is then gently massaged, helping it release the eggs. This method can easily squish the eggs, so the water is treated with calcium carbonate. This hardens the eggs as they exit, making them easy to handle, but changes the texture and flavor.
Both humane methods produce a significant difference in flavor and texture, something caviar lovers are not willing to pay for, since it’s not the product they know and love. The very point of caviar is that it’s delicate, soft roe that melts in your mouth.
Why sturgeon is the favored fish for caviar
If extracting roe from sturgeon is so fussy, why is it the favorite fish then ? Well, there are two reasons. First, it’s the traditional fish to use. as this was the original fish used by Persian caviar farmers. This is because sturgeon is plentiful (or, it was) in the Caspian sea, right on the northern border of the ancient Persian Empire.
Nowadays you can find sturgeon in North America and Russia as well, and currently Russia and Iran are the main caviar exporters.
The second reason is that sturgeon produces a whole lot of roe, more than other fish types. The roe can weigh almost 100 lbs/43 kg, per female ! And when you buy caviar, it comes in a small tin, so a lot of roe may result in a lot of product.
Still, caviar ends up expensive because the roe is both crucial to keeping the species alive, and a delicacy that people are willing to pay top dollar for. There’s also the time it takes for a female sturgeon to fully develop the roe, harvest the roe, and the cure and package it.
Can you cure salmon roe ?
You can cure salmon roe just like you would sturgeon roe. The total cost is much lower, because despite salmon being a highly-sought after fish, it’s still more abundant than sturgeon.
If you were to make caviar from salmon roe, you’d have to name it salmon caviar, since it is not the same thing as true, sturgeon caviar. There is a difference in texture, since the salmon roe is much larger, and the flavor will be a little different too.
How to use salmon roe
Possibly one of the best ways to use salmon roe is to add it to sushi, or to add it to a salad as a pop of color and flavor.
There are also smorgastorta versions that use salmon roe as well. If you’re not sure what that is, it’s a Swedish sandwich cake that relies heavily on fish, shrimp, mayo, mustard, a bit of horseradish, and whatever else goes along nicely with smoked salmon, like green salad or cucumbers.
It’s more of a party or big gathering kind of dish, and it resembles a very beautiful savory cake, except it’s usually rectangular.
You can also eat salmon caviar on its own, like normal caviar. Whatever you decide to do, just know that true caviar is very expensive. While salmon caviar isn’t the real deal, it may be close enough. In the end caviar is a delicacy, and not everyone will appreciate the flavor.
If you’ve got any other food curiosities be sure to check the related articles below, we’re always adding more food facts to make your life that much easier.