As an ancient food source, caviar’s popularity has exploded in recent years and is firmly established globally as a luxury food item. However, with its luxury status comes an equally elite price tag, but are all caviars expensive?
While the term caviar is often used interchangeably with the cured roe from various fish species, the actual definition of caviar cites it as roe which comes from sturgeon. While all genuine caviar is expensive, including domestically farmed caviar, caviar substitutes are more affordable.
Although it may appear strange at face value that a simple topping could cost hundreds of dollars a pound, there are some obvious reasons for this price tag. Furthermore, while all caviar is expensive, there are more affordable domestic options and roe variants on the market:
Why Is Caviar Expensive?
Caviar is the roe of surgeon, whereby there are over 27 species of sturgeon that produce caviar at various prices. However, despite the different price points, the unique nature of caviar production makes it an expensive product, regardless of the brand or species of sturgeon that laid the roe.
Curiously, caviar was not considered a delicacy until the Russian royal family took a liking to it, leading to a perception of luxury and the desire to perfect the art of caviar harvesting and processing.
Consequently, the increased demand for caviar among elite circles led to the inflation of caviar’s price, coupled with the fact that sturgeon populations started to dwindle due to overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss. Therefore, all 27 species of sturgeon that produce caviar are critically endangered!
The act of harvesting caviar is also a meticulous and time-consuming exercise that further increases the price of caviar, as the supply can seldom meet the demand. Sturgeon only reach sexually between 8 and 20 years of age; this makes farming caviar a time-consuming process with unclear harvest dates.
How Do They Harvest Caviar?
Harvesting caviar requires that the sturgeon be killed to extract their eggs. As a result of this method of harvesting, fish farmers can only secure a single harvest from decades of rearing and caring for sturgeon! Although no-kill methods are being introduced, they remain experimental and unreliable.
The harvesting process needs to be done by hand, requiring intensive labor costs to hire skilled employees that can efficiently and safely harvest and prepare caviar. Furthermore, the costs of commercial caviar fish farms can be very high, especially if a farmer is hoping to harvest grade 1 caviar over grade 2 caviar.
While both grades of caviar are expensive, grade 1 caviar is extremely rare, as it must perfectly match the flavor profile, notes, and textures of the caviar variant being advertised.
What Affordable Caviar Can You Buy?
While the term “affordable” is relative when discussing caviar, domestic caviar is a more affordable option than imported caviar.
Although the best caviar is believed to come from the Caspian Sea and costs hundreds of dollars an ounce. Other imported caviar, such as Siberian sturgeon, is more affordable at approximately $95 an ounce.
However, because the primary factors driving up prices of imported goods such as caviar are taxes, permits, and customs duties, domestic caviar presents similar quality to mid-range imported caviar at lower prices.
Is American Caviar Good?
High-quality American white sturgeon caviar is a favorite of local connoisseurs at approximately $80 an ounce. American white sturgeon caviar is known for its darker color, increased fattiness, with creamy, buttery, and nutty flavor notes.
Although some caviar beads of American white sturgeon may be greenish, this is expected and denotes an increased layer of fattiness that adds to its flavor. However, just check the packaging date before purchase, as freshness is vital.
More affordable varieties of domestic caviar include hackleback and paddlefish. Hackleback caviar is black with a nutty finish and is considered an inexpensive substitute for osetra caviar. Paddlefish caviar is gray with a noticeable pop and mineral finish and is regarded as a good substitute for sevruga caviar.
While hackleback and paddlefish caviar vary in price, they typically cost between $13 and $25 an ounce.
What Roe Can You Use As A Substitute For Caviar?
While genuine caviar is best enjoyed alone or as a topic on a plain cracker to experience the full spectrum of caviar’s unique flavor notes and texture, inexpensive alternatives are popular for various reasons.
Consequently, one of the most common methods of enjoying roe from other fish species is as a topping on other foods to add an extra layer of salt or texture to the finished product. Therefore, it is common to find roe as a topping on sushi.
A domestic variant of roe that can be used as an inexpensive substitute for caviar is Bowfin, otherwise known as Cajun Caviar. Bowfin roe has a robust flavor and eggs that turn reddish-orange when cooked.
Salmon roe is similar to Bowfin roe but frequently imported rather than farmed domestically. Despite being imported, most salmon roe is inexpensive and used as a topping for sushi. However, unlike Bowfin roe which goes red when cooked, salmon roe is usually dyed, meaning it can bleed a bluish-black color under the wrong storage conditions.
Other roe substitutes that can be found domestically and seldom require any dying or curing are wild salmon roe, trout roe, and whitefish roe. These roe variants have a golden-red hue and notable firm textures.
Fortunately, while caviar and roe of different price points may have various taste profiles and textures, all caviar and roe are nutrient-dense foods. Therefore, caviar and roe are excellent sources of omega-3 and vitamin B12 while containing essential vitamins such as A, E, B6, iron, selenium, and magnesium!
In conclusion, although it is unlikely that you will be able to source genuine caviar or quality caviar substitutes such as roe for a low price, there are varying price points for relatively inexpensive caviar.
However, most people will be unable to experience caviar or roe regularly without spending large sums of money and unnecessarily stretching their budget.