Culinary Caviar: The real deal, the substitute, and the Faux fun stuff

CaviarCaviar - once exclusively for royalty - is a food delicacy made from unfertilized wild sturgeon eggs (roe) that have been brined with a salt solution. Described as "salty, fishy, and somewhat squishy," caviar is an acquired taste. As a spread or hors d'oeuvre, it is generally served with toast points or crackers. It is sometimes also accompanied by crème fraîche or sour cream and chopped hard-boiled eggs or onions. Purists, however, scoff at these condiments as detracting from the "experience" of caviar.

Caviar: What it is and what it's not!

Strictly speaking, caviar is traditionally from the Caspian and Black seas, primarily from Iran and Russia, and includes three main types - Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga. However, the term "caviar" has more recently been expanded in some countries to include roe from other fish such as salmon, rainbow trout, cod, and herring, as well as sturgeon from other geographical areas. Even Kibbutz Dan, in Israel, has become a lucrative source of top-grade Karat Caviar, farming the sturgeon in its mountain-spring ponds.

Although some caviar substitutes are pasteurized, dyed, spiced, and treated with preservatives, the most expensive, top-quality caviar is not. Top-shelf caviar can sell for more than $3,000 per pound; substitute caviar costs considerably less. Some enterprising "caviar" producers have products such as pale green Wasabi Flying Fish roe, often used in sushi, and roe colored yellow and flavored with ginger.

Culinary caviar

Caviar can also add that certain something to other foods. Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of New York restaurant Le Bernardin, offers the following caviar recipes:

  • Baked Potatoes with Sour Cream & Caviar
  • Caviar Begger's Purse: a crepe filled with cream cheese, sour cream, and caviar>
  • Caviar Parfaits: sour cream, avocado, onion, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, and caviar served with assorted breadsticks
  • Fettuccine with Chives, Crème Fraîche, and Salmon Roe

Caviar was featured as the key ingredient on a 2011 "Iron Chef America" battle between Bobby Flay, chef/restaurateur, cookbook author, and TV culinary personality, and Jason Knibb, executive chef of Nine-Ten Restaurant and Bar in San Diego. As the show's most expensive ingredient to date, the Iron Chef caviar treats included buckwheat blinis with caviar, squash blossoms stuffed with caviar, caviar and curry potato salad, and even crème fraîche and caviar ice cream.

The new "faux caviar" experience

But what about those people with champagne taste on a beer budget? A new "caviar" experience has burst onto the culinary scene. Think watermelon, cantaloupe, mango, green tea, pale ale, or even root beer "caviar." Ronnie Vance, chef at Burnside Brewing in Portland, recommends its olive oil poached salmon with a side of "beer caviar" he creates from local Mc Adam stout.

If you want to wow the guests at your next cocktail party, make your own faux caviar from your favorite liquid using a molecular gastronomy technique called spherification. A little background: Molecular gastronomy is a food science discipline that explores how culinary ingredients are transformed both physically and chemically during the cooking process. Spherification is the process that shapes liquid into spheres that resemble caviar.

Faux caviar: the spherification technique explained

One technique, basic spherification, produces a liquid sphere with a very thin membrane that explodes the liquid in your mouth when you bite down. This process works best with low-acidity ingredients. However, the spheres continue to gel so they need to be served immediately before the juicy explosion is no more. In basic spherification,

  1. Sodium alginate is dissolved in whatever liquid you have chosen for your "caviar"
  2. The mixture is dripped into a bowl that contains calcium chloride
  3. The droplets will retain the shape of small caviar-like spheres

Another technique, reverse spherification, which is best used with ingredients that have a high alcohol or calcium content, produces a sphere with a thicker membrane that lasts longer and does not continue to gel. In reverse spherification,

  1. Mix your liquid with calcium gluconate and calcium lactate
  2. Submerge the mixture in a bath of sodium alginate
  3. Rinse the "caviar" thoroughly to stop the gelling process

So if you're feeling particularly ambitious one Saturday night, whip up some Cointreau "caviar" infused with edible gold flakes to liven up your cocktail party, or make root beer "caviar" with vanilla ice cream and root beer foam for the kids. It may not be as fancy as $3,000-a-pound caviar, but it sure sounds (and tastes) like a lot more fun for a lot less money.

About the Author:
Kay Easton graduated from the State University of New York with a BA in English Literature. As a freelance and technical writer with more than 20 years experience, she writes articles for the Internet on a variety of topics.