You’ve probably been told time and time again that caviar is just fish roe or eggs, but the truth is a little more complicated than that, and not all fish roe is caviar. 

In fact, fish row and caviar are suitable for different kinds of meals and can vary from being an important ingredient to the star of the show. 

Here’s what you need to know to tell the difference between fish roe and caviar, why it matters, and why not all fish roe is automatically made into caviar. 

Fish RoeCaviar
Common Fish SpeciesSalmon, trout, paddlefish, whitefish, mullet, and othersSturgeon
OriginUnknownInvented in the Persian Empire, popular and signature dish/ingredient in Russia. 
PreparationWashed, filtered, and various other cures and preparationWashed, sieved for size, cleaned by hand, salt-cured. 
PriceRange from relatively affordable to expensive. Starts expensive, and gets increasingly more so as the quality improves. 

What is Fish Roe

At the most basic level, fish roe is just the unfertilized eggs of fish. However, there are a lot of types of fish roe we don’t eat, and only a relatively limited number of eggs we do. Additionally, different kinds of fish roe are harvested at different levels of development and go through different kinds of processing before being eaten. 

Fish roe needs to be carefully cleaned, and is usually salt-cured before eating. The salt helps give the fish roe a firmer texture and also helps to create the signature popping sensation of eating the roe. 

This isn’t really an ingredient that most of us are going to be making or processing at home unless you happen to raise adult fish in your backyard. But it’s still an interesting ingredient to look closely at and experiment with as a possible addition to the recipes we know and love. 

Different Types of Edible Fish Roe

There are a lot more types of fish roe than what is typically made into caviar. The two most common kinds of fish roe that we typically eat are salmon and trout row. However, there are a lot of other fish that also produce potentially salable roe, and both fresh and saltwater fish can produce edible fish roe. 

Whether people process and eat fish roe depends on how difficult it is to get to the fish at the right stage of development to harvest the roe, the size and taste of the mature eggs, and how difficult it is to process and clean the roe. 

How Do You Get Fish Roe? 

Fish roe is almost always harvested directly from the fish by pulling the developing egg sacs out of the fish at the right point in their development. 

The process usually kills the fish, though most fish roe and caviar fish can still be processed to produce meat for people. 

There are some new methods of getting fish roe that don’t kill the fish and allow them to continue producing eggs for future harvests or reproduction. However, these methods are still relatively uncommon and haven’t been widely adopted. 

Delicious Fish Roe Pairings

Fish roe is a delicious addition to a lot of different foods, though it’s rarely the star of the show. For example, salmon roe is a common addition to sushi, thanks to its salty flavor and novel texture, which can help vary the texture of different kinds of sushi. 

Fish roe is also relatively common as an addition to egg dishes (chicken eggs, that is, not fish eggs). 

White cheeses and cream are also good pairings for fish roe since those softer, creamier flavors tend to help highlight the fishy and salty flavors in the fish roe. They are also a good background for the change in flavors when the roe is whole vs. when you bite into the roe in your mouth. 

Vegetable pairings generally work best if you use mild-tasting vegetables, like cucumber, thin slivers of bell peppers, or carrot. Pears, apples, and grapes are all good fruit pairings. 

Of course, fish roe also works very well with other fishy flavors, like seaweed, sashimi-grade fish, or smoked salmon. 

Last, some of the most classic fish roe pairings are crackers and strongly flavored breads. Herb breads may not work as well, since they can overpower the taste of the roe. But rye, pumpernickel, and sourdough breads all work well. 

Great Recipes Using Fish Roe

One of the simplest and most accessible ways to add fish roe to your diet is to add them to an already classic dish, scrambled eggs. That’s because scrambled eggs have a mild flavor and soft texture that is great contrast for the intense flavor, saltiness, and unique texture of the roe. Here’s a recipe for trout roe and eggs from the New York Times if you want to try your hand at this dish. 

Or, for more adventurous eaters or people already familiar with fish roe in cooking, the Spruce Eats has a delicious Bulgarian fish roe appetizer that can be made with a range of roe options to make it easier to source them. 

What Is Caviar?

The biggest difference between fish roe and caviar actually isn’t preparation, aging, or other details of the process. The big difference is which fish the roe is from. 

Caviar is the special designation reserved for species of sturgeon fish. There are a few different species of sturgeon, 

Different Styles Of Caviar

There are a couple of key differences between different kinds of caviar. Most of the time the biggest difference between caviar is what species of sturgeon was used to get the fish roe. 

However, there are also aged versions of caviar, as well as different kinds of salt cure that result in saltier or less salty versions of the dish. 

Aging also changes the color, taste, and texture of the caviar. There are hundreds of different ways to make caviar, and different companies and producers have different methods to create their unique version of caviar. 

How Is Caviar Made? 

Caviar is first harvested from sturgeon, often sturgeon that have been specifically raised for making caviar. Like fish roe, most of the sturgeon involved in making caviar are killed in the process, but some newer techniques help to save the sturgeon and allow them to continue producing eggs and reproducing. 

That’s important because many species of sturgeon that have been used for caviar production have become endangered as a result of the industry. 

Once the eggs are harvested they are rinsed and separated to be sorted by size. Different size eggs have a different value, are often prepared differently, and can also have a different finished flavor or texture. So all the eggs in a tin of caviar are approximately the same size. 

In addition to cleaning and sorting, the eggs are also picked through to remove any contaminants and any eggs that were broken during harvest or processing. Only whole, pure, high-quality sturgeon eggs are turned into caviar. 

From there, the eggs are salt-cured and aged. At a minimum, caviar is aged for 3 months before sale. It can be aged much longer than that, though, and the flavors change throughout the aging process, getting stronger and more distinct over time. 

Caviar Pairings and Toppings To Play With

Caviar is a relatively versatile ingredient, but, unlike fish roe, the longer aging for caviar means that it draws more attention than fish roe often does. The classic Russian pairing for caviar is a blini. Buttered toast or low-salt crackers also work very well. 

A small amount of caviar also works in pasta, can be paired with a wide range of cheeses, and yes, even chocolate. 

The fresh flavor of vegetables and fruits can also pair well with caviar. Lemon is a common pairing since its sharp acidity helps cut some of the fatty texture of some caviar, while the saltiness in the caviar brings out the sweetness of the lemon. Avocados, red onions, cucumbers, and other vegetables are also fantastic pairing. 

Sour cream and creamy white cheeses are another classic option. Both strong and mild cheeses work well, though it can take some experimentation to find your perfect pairing for each brand or age of caviar. 

Top Caviar Recipes You’re Sure To Love

Food Network has a recipe for one of the most classic pairings of caviar, a caviar and lemon pasta

Or, for an upscale appetizer sure to please and impress your guests, you can turn to Food and Wine’s potato pancakes with smoked salmon, caviar, and drill cream

Wrapping Up: What are the key differences between fish roe and caviar? 

There are a lot of subtle differences between fish roe and caviar, but the key differences are really just in the type of fish that is harvested for its roe. Only sturgeon roe can be called caviar, while other kinds of fish roe can go through a similar aging process but don’t get the caviar name. 

In fact, caviar and sturgeon are so inseparable that the fish themselves used to be called caviar as well!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: What is the difference between caviar and fish roe? 

The difference is all about the fish. Fish roe is harvested from other kinds of fish, while caviar is always harvested exclusively from sturgeon. 

Q2: Why is fish roe so expensive? 

Fish roe can be expensive because the process to harvest, cleaning, and processing fish roe is work-intensive, and parts of the process have to be done by hand. Limitations on fishing, species preservation, and the aging process also all increase the cost of producing fish roe.

Q3: Is fish roe or caviar healthier? 

Neither of these foods is inherently better or worse than the other. Both are fish roe, salted, and then aged. The differences are more in what fish the roe comes from. Micronutrients can vary quite a bit, but both caviar and fish roe are going to be high in fat and salt.

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