Caviar vs roe: What’s the difference? They’re both fish eggs, true, and to some, that makes them equally icky—while to caviar connoisseurs, there is simply no comparison. “Caviar” refers to the small, glistening eggs of sturgeon, ancient, smooth-skinned, paddle-nosed fish, of which there are 27 species, while “roe” is a term that encompasses all other fish eggs. Caviar even gets its own holiday: National Caviar Day on July 18. But what makes it so much more special than other fish eggs?
Why Is Caviar So Expensive?
The reason is twofold. First, wild sturgeon species everywhere are threatened due to overfishing, pollution, and general habitat destruction. On top of that general scarcity, it takes the female fish several years to reach maturity and begin producing eggs—one of the reasons that even farmed sturgeon caviar, which is now the most widely available option, still isn’t cheap. Tech Insider can tell you more:
How Did Caviar Become Such a Delicacy?
As to why people are willing to pay exorbitant prices for any fish eggs, well, caviar has a lot of historical cachet—although, like lobster, it wasn’t always considered a luxury ingredient. There was a time when caviar passed for peasant food, and caviar from American sturgeons was so plentiful during the 19th century that it was allegedly served in saloons like nuts or pretzels—a salty snack bars could afford to give away for free, or nearly so, especially since it made patrons order more ale to quench their increased thirst.
Clearly, plenty of people have always enjoyed the briny taste of cured fish eggs (all caviar is cured—that is, salted and aged—in order to preserve it and improve its flavor, though the best quality is considered “malossol” which means they’re only lightly salted), as well as the way they pop on the tongue under gentle pressure to release their rich, oily juices.
Many records mention Aristotle writing about caviar in the 4th century, when its arrival at the banquet table would be heralded with trumpet fanfare. But it was the Russian tsars that are really responsible for the high-status mark it still bears today. Caviar harvested from wild sturgeon in the Caspian Sea (an inland body of water bordered by parts of Russia and Iran, as well as Kazahkstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan) became the most highly prized kind, and according to Petrossian, in the caviar business since 1920: “Exiled Russian royalty, intellectuals and aristocrats who fled the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917” and settled in Paris brought a demand for quality caviar with them and helped spread the fad throughout Europe.
The most famous (and expensive) kinds or grades of Caspian Sea caviar were historically Beluga (large, buttery, silver-gray to black eggs from the largest species of sturgeon, which is now critically endangered); Osetra (slightly smaller eggs, more brown in color, and with a nuttier flavor); and Sevruga (smaller still, stronger-tasting, and with a gray tint)—but there are many other types, like golden Sterlet and Kaluga (which is largely farmed in China, and seems to be becoming the new Beluga, capable of fetching around $500 per ounce). With so many different types available—and with specific origins often obscured by marketing and labeling—choosing which caviar to buy can be confusing; it largely comes down to trusting the brand, or at least the retailer.
Marky's Imperial Osetra Caviar, 9 ounces for $1,615.95 at Walmart
No, that number is not a typo (and neither is the retail location).
What Other Types of Fish Eggs Are Eaten?
So many! Besides sturgeon caviar, some of the most popular—and far more affordable—types of roe include salmon (sometimes called “red caviar”), those large, bright orange, luscious beads often found in sushi; trout roe (sometimes smoked); and tobiko (the tiny, crunchy, brightly colored eggs often found on sushi, harvested from flying fish and variously dyed black with squid ink, green with wasabi, red with beets, or yellow with yuzu). You’ll also find jars of relatively cheap fish eggs labeled caviar, but they’ll always include the type of fish they come from: paddlefish caviar (or spoonbill caviar); lumpfish caviar (which comes in red and black varieties); hackleback (or American sturgeon) caviar; capelin caviar; and so on.
Marky's Hackleback Black American Sturgeon Caviar, 1.75 ounces for $71.95 on Amazon
Hackleback is true sturgeon caviar at a more affordable price.
Tarama is carp or cod roe that’s often smoked in addition to being cured. Similarly, bottarga is salt-cured tuna or mullet roe that’s been pressed and dried (so it’s shaved onto dishes rather than spooned on).
Sardinian Gold Bottarga, $20.99 on Amazon
Shave over pasta, salads, or vegetables to finish your dish.
Moving away from finfish, while they’re not harvested commercially in order to be sold on their own, shrimp roe and spot prawn roe in particular are often prized by diners when they come included on the shellfish. Lobster roe is often made into a buttery sauce, but just as often discarded by diners; crab roe can also be consumed, most traditionally in she-crab soup, though it’s difficult to come by. And sea urchin roe, known as uni, is a more custardy, uniform substance compared to the discrete, popping spheres of other roe.
And while not actually caviar or roe, you can even find “vegan caviar” these days. These briny little beads are seaweed-based, with a milder taste than but similar texture to the real stuff.
Caviart Vegan Caviar, 3.5 ounces for $9.95 on Amazon
Seems fishy, but it's not!
How to Use Caviar & Fish Eggs
Whether you decide to dip your toe (or mother-of-pearl spoon) into the rareified—and priced-to-match—stuff from sturgeon, or explore the more affordable options in the wide world of fish eggs, here are some ways to use caviar (and roe) besides nibbling it on its own.
The miniature pancakes known as blini are a traditional accompaniment to caviar, but we make ours with cornmeal instead of the more common buckwheat. Purists may wish to skip the crème fraîche and salmon, especially if they have a really expensive tin of fish eggs on hand. Get our Cornmeal Blini with Caviar recipe.
The large, relatively soft pop of salmon roe makes egg salad a little more sophisticated (and interesting, both texture- and flavor-wise). Get the Tarragon Egg Salad with Salmon Roe recipe.
This elegant take on cucumber salad features both smoked trout and trout roe, along with sesame yogurt and a seaweed dressing for even more marine flavors. Get the Cucumber Salad with Smoked Trout and Trout Roe recipe.
Smoked salmon mousse is simple, but piped onto cucumber rounds and topped with caviar, it makes a perfectly elegant cocktail party nibble, suitable for whatever quality of caviar your taste (and budget) dictates. Get our Smoked Salmon Mousse with Caviar recipe.
Oysters are another iconic and divisive oceanic ingredient, so why not pair them with caviar? There’s also a hint of ham hock broth here, so this is sort of a surf and turf option. Get our Oysters with Caviar and Cucumber recipe.
Potato skins may seem a little humble for caviar, but this is a fun way to use the non-stratospherically-priced stuff. They can serve as an Oscar party appetizer or a special Netflix-and-hibernate snack. Get our Smoked Salmon, Crème Fraîche, and Caviar Potato Skins recipe.
Make your morning a little more luxurious by adding lobster and caviar to your scrambled eggs. Hey, you’re worth it. (Champagne optional, but on the weekend, we say go for it!) Get the Lobster Scrambled Eggs with Caviar and Crème Fraîche recipe.
Tobiko is primarily used as a brightly colored garnish that also adds a little salt and crunch, so try using it on homemade sushi. (And since you’ll probably have some left over, if you’re into eggs on eggs, try a tobiko omelet recipe with the rest.) Get the California Roll recipe and the Dragon Roll recipe.
OK, this one’s a fake-out—what looks (and pops) like caviar is actually the acidic, spherical flesh of finger limes, also called caviar limes for obvious reason. The bad news is, they can be difficult to obtain, but even so, they’re still less expensive than actual caviar! Get the Prawns with Nasturtium Leaves and Finger Lime recipe.
Header image courtesy of Creativ Studio Heinemann/Getty Images.