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.
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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.