Abby Hocking

What to know before you shop for the world’s priciest and most misunderstood delicacy.

James Oliver Cury
December 30, 2015

Caviar is complex. Few people know all the rules governing the luxury treat—not even those who sell it. And these days, there are literally hundreds of types of fish eggs on the market. Below are seven tips to help identify which products are worth the money, regardless of budget, whether you’re planning an elegant New Year’s Eve party or an extravagant solo snack.

1. Know Your Sturgeons

According to most enthusiasts and the dictionary, caviar is “the roe of sturgeon” and not “any old fish eggs in a fancy tin.” The FDA agrees, so long as the product is simply labeled “caviar.” (If a species is named on the packaging, it can legally be any fish at all.) Here’s where things get confusing: There are 27 species of sturgeon. Caspian sea sturgeon are considered the very top in this order: beluga, osetra, and then sevruga. Today, these are all endangered species and there is an outright ban on importing beluga, making it nearly impossible to buy. (Plus, no ethical person should want to encourage the trade of an overfished animal.) Next in line would be European, Israeli and American osetra, and then Siberian, white, and hackleback. The last, known for being briny with buttery and nutty notes, is especially popular and comparatively reasonable in price: It starts at around $40 for two ounces.

2. Consider Alternative Roes

Paddlefish (also known as spoonbill) is the premiere non-sturgeon; its small, silver-gray eggs are the closest in flavor to traditional caviar—and also the most expensive. Two ounces start around $50. Nutty bowfin (a.k.a. amia calva, choupique and Cajun), is more affordable. You can find it for as little as $24 for two ounces.

You’ll also encounter roes that may be familiar to sushi fans: salmon, capelin, masago, and flying fish (tobiko). Salmon eggs are especially juicy and large; the others are most often used as garnish.

3. Learn to Decode Labels

Nearly every caviar vendor offers a tiered selection (good, better, best) and they invariably refer to their finest samples (read: priciest) as imperial, royal, presidential or prestige. These may be delicious products, but there is no regulation of such terms. Making matters more complicated, some retailers, worried about negative associations with certain species, ditch convention and make up their own names for their caviar. Petrossian’s Chataluga Prestige, for example, is from a kind of paddlefish. Makenzie’s “American Beluga Caviar” is most likely white sturgeon from Idaho. Ultimately, you can look for the scientific, non-intuitive, Latin names. Siberian sturgeon, for example, is acipenser baerii.

4. Make No Assumptions About Origin

The geography of caviar has shifted over the last two decades. With Russian and Iranian supplies nearly decimated, fancy fish farmers popped up all over the globe, most notably In the United States, China, Iceland, Spain, Israel, Canada, Belgium, France, Italy, Uruguay, and Poland. You’ll see the phrase “Russian sturgeon” all over the place, but it can be misleading, according to Andy Rosenthal, creative director at the recently launched Khavyar.com. Does this mean your caviar comes from Russia? Almost certainly not. Does it come from a fish descended from Russian stock? Maybe. As with many foods, the colors, textures, and flavors depend on the climate and treatment. Quality control varies if you’re dealing with wild versus farmed, and even season to season, says Rosenthal. Ultimately, country of origin alone cannot indicate quality.

5. Beware of Flavored Fish Eggs

Remember when every cocktail bar seemed to have vodkas with various infusions? That mentality has seeped into the low-end caviar market. Thus you can buy Ghost Pepper Caviar (made from Bowfin roe harvested in Louisiana), spicy wasabi caviar made from flying fish roe (and green!), lemon- or ginger-infused whitefish roe, and even smoke-infused salmon roe. As with flavored booze, the core ingredient in these cases usually needed disguising. But for a novelty nosh, who cares?

6. Buy from a Reputable Source

The best tip of all is to buy from a reliable seller. There are many, but we'll vouch for Petrossian, Khavyar, Sterling and Zabar’s.