Expert advice for all your fish egg-buying needs.
When it comes to fancy New Years Eve snacks, caviar is king. But it can be daunting: isn’t it super expensive? How do you know which kind to buy? And how the hell do you serve it?
Fear not, would-be revelers. The name of chef Guy Meikle’s game is caviar, and his Chicago restaurant Heritage is dedicated to all things roe. Below, he explains everything you need to know to have a very fishy New Year, whether you know your sturgeon from your paddlefish...or you’re not even sure where to find it in the fancy grocery store. (Hint: it’s probably refrigrated.)
So, what is caviar, exactly?
Let’s start with the broader term, roe. Roe are fish eggs. (You knew that.) So that includes eggs from “salmon, trout, hackleback, bowfin, chad...anything else.” Caviar, on the other hand, is roe that came from a sturgeon. “No matter where it's harvested in the world,” says Meikle. “But it's got to be from a sturgeon. So that's Mississippi River sturgeon, that could be an Idaho white sturgeon, and it could be an imperial Russian sturgeon.” Caviar is lightly cured, and, Meikle says, “the best caviars use just salt.”
Got it. Now, how do I buy it?
Head to the refrigerated section of your grocery store where smoked fish and other oceanic delicacies are kept. There are some caviars that are not refrigerated, but Meikle notes that these are very high in salt content—which is sometimes an indicator that you’re dealing with inferior roe. Higher quality stuff won’t need to hide behind a ton of salt.
Meikle advises you look for roe in clear glass jars. While plenty of good caviar comes in opaque containers, “If it's a clear jar you can flip it over and see how the eggs look.” What are you looking for? “Clear, defined separation between the eggs.” You don’t want them to look muddy.
Do I have to spend a million dollars?
“I love caviar that’s even as low as $10 a jar,” says Meikle. “I always say go for budget—you want to have a plentiful amount,” as opposed to buying a tiny quantity of something super expensive. This is about being decadent, after all; there’s no fun in doling out a half teaspoon of top-shelf caviar to a roomful of friends. Meikle recommends Louisiana bowfin, American spoonbill, or Illinois hackleback roe as economic and delicious options.
...But what if I want to spend a million dollars?
Look for the word “malossol” on the label, which means you’re dealing with a low-salt caviar. “Rather than mixing with salt and then putting it in a tin,” Meikle explains, “they soak it quickly in a brine and then strain it. So these eggs will be all crystal clear, clean, firm, no mush, good high quality and usually those will be a little bit more expensive.”