There are a number of different caviars both sturgeon-based, and non-sturgeon based on the market, so when you shop for caviar it is important to understand the type of caviar you wish to buy. Doing some research will help you to decide on which caviar variety or type that will best complement your taste and expectations. In addition, how you intend to eat or serve the caviar (by itself, with accompaniments, or in a recipe) will further determine which caviar works best for you.
Caviar is typically packed and shipped in tins, and although you can purchase fresh caviar (generally sold in jars), keep in mind that the term “fresh” includes a preservation process- as quality caviar is aged in brine for anywhere between 1-4 weeks (or longer). In addition, the flavor of the eggs is enhanced through the brine-soaking and salting that gives the roe its overall characteristic taste.
There are many types and varieties of caviar, those derived from the Acipenseridae family (sturgeon caviar), and those that are not (non-sturgeon caviar).
Beluga: From the Sturgeon family, Beluga (from Beluga sturgeon) is considered to be the highest premium grade of caviar available. This caviar has large eggs the size of a pea with a prominent darkened spot (called the eye). The eggs are glossy, soft, and clear and range in color from faint gray-silver to black. They have a buttery, very-faint ocean taste. Beluga is the most expensive of caviars, largely due to the limited supply placed on their removal from the Caspian Sea: only Beluga sturgeons are allowed to be caught each year.
Osetra: Also from the Sturgeon family, Osetra (from Russian Sturgeon) caviar has moderate-sized eggs that vary in color from gray to grayish-green to brown eggs (depending on the maturity of the fish). The caviar has a nutty flavor- although there is an inconsistently in overall flavor based upon what the bottom-feeding Osetra sturgeons eat (what they eat reflects the taste of the eggs they carry).
Sevruga: Also from the Sturgeon family (from Stellate Sturgeon), but with smaller eggs compared to Osetra. Sevruga has a salty rich flavor (the strongest of the caviars- most likely due to the smaller egg size (smaller eggs increases the amount of eggs per spoonful- hence the saltier richer taste as compared to Beluga for example (much larger eggs). The eggs are gray in color, and because the Stellate Sturgeon is abundant, Sevruga is much less expensive to both Beluga and Osetra caviars.
Sterlet: Also from the Sturgeon family, all but considered extinct-therefore extremely expensive if you can find any. The eggs are small and golden in color- said to be the finest caviar ever- was once limited for consumption by only royalty.
Hackleback Caviar: From the shovelnose or Sand sturgeon, this caviar “combines the sweet, nutty, and buttery characteristics of other caviars. Its roe is a rich, glossy black color of medium size, firm”
White Sturgeon Caviar: Acipenser transmontanus, which translates to “sturgeon beyond the mountains”), is also known as the Pacific sturgeon. It is the largest freshwater fish in North America and is the third largest species of sturgeon, after the Beluga and the Kaluga. It has medium, rich, shiny and firm grains. Gray, olive-green, velvet chocolate in color.
Bowfin: This caviar from the sport fish Bowfin which are basal and bony fish common to Louisiana. They have firm, black grains and a mild flavor.
Carp: Tarma roe, taken from carp, is orange in color, with tiny, almost microscopic eggs. As a result, the eggs are often smoked and used as a light and flavorful base to make popular spreads.
Capelin: Also known as Masago, popular in sushi dishes. Typically mandarin orange in color, 1-1.5mm grains (small) with a mild flavor.
Lumpfish: Also known as lumpsuckers, these fish are found in colder temperature waters in the Atlantic and Pacific, as well in seas around Europe. The lumpfish eggs (known as stenbider or stenbit) are tiny and most often dyed red or black with a creamy, briny flavor.
Paddlefish: The paddlefish (a cousin of the sturgeon), a.k.a. “American Caviar” is so named because it is commonly found in the Mississippi, as well as in Lake Erie. The eggs range in size from medium-small and are normally gray in color. From a taste perspective, paddlefish caviar has an earthy, long-lasting, warm flavor (some say it is “muddy” tasting).
Salmon: Also known as “red caviar,” because of their orange or deep-red color, salmon roe are medium-large sized (5-6mm) and is considered to be the best-quality substitute for the high-quality, expensive sturgeon varieties. It is extremely popular in Asia (especially Japan) and North America where it is used predominately in the making of sushi.
Trout: Typically from the rainbow trout, the eggs are orange and slightly smaller (4mm) than typical salmon roe. Trout roe have a mild, slightly salty flavor, and since most trout are farmed, trout caviar is one of the most value-added (taste versus cost) and affordable caviars on the market.
Whitefish: Found in and around the Great Lakes and most northern countries, Whitefish has small golden-yellow eggs, with a subtle taste, making it versatile for use in most recipes.