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Red Caviar: A Detailed Guide To Making A Smart Purchase

by Nikolai Nikitenko January 13, 2016

Red Caviar: A Detailed Guide To Making A Smart Purchase

Salmon caviar, also known as red caviar, is a very popular delicacy in Japan, where it is known as ikura and in Eastern Europe where it is called ikra. Throughout the world it is sold and served in many different forms and consumed not only for its unique quality and taste, but also for the health benefits it has within it. We will be showing you the difference between the species of Salmon and the grading system for Salmon Caviar. We will also discuss the difference in packaging and what it can mean for the product that you purchase. Though salmon caviar can be produced throughout the world; we will be covering only US production in Alaska of wild salmon.

The species of salmon are Coho Salmon (also known as Silver Salmon), Pink Salmon, Chum Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, and King Salmon (also known as Chinook).
The biggest difference in the caviar from all of these fish is the size of the roe and the pigment of the caviar. Chum Salmon will have a much larger roe diameter than all of the other species with an average of 9mm. On the other hand Coho and Sockeye will have smaller roe diameters, with Sockeye being the smallest by far. Pink Salmon caviar will be right in the middle with 7mm in average diameter, which makes it one of the most popular types of salmon roe.
Pigment wise, the caviar can range from dark red with Sockeye Salmon, to light Orange with Chum Salmon. Of course, when it comes to different species, there is also a slight difference in flavor between them all. For example, the larger roes like King and Chum can taste richer than the others, while Pink Salmon caviar can have something of a sweeter flavor to it. Some people notice it, but for the most part the difference is subtle enough for most consumers to not realize the difference. Yet at the same time it could be the slight difference that people go for when looking for their favorite red caviar.

Salmon season throughout Alaska ranges from the months of May to September. Once the fish is caught, it will be kept on ice until the vessel arrives in port. If the vessel is large enough to hold a production facility on board, then it will begin production there; otherwise the freshly caught fish will be kept on ice until it is in port. When the fish has been unloaded it will be opened up and the roe sack will be separated out and sent out for grading. Grading checks for the many factors in roe quality.
The first thing that is checked during grading in the freshness of the fish and of the roe. The fresher the fish, the better quality roe it will have. Once the roe has been taken out of the fish it will be downgraded every two hours unless it is salted or frozen.
Next it checks for the maturity of the roe. The more mature roe will be graded higher than any immature roe. The grades are broken up into Grades 1-3. The main focus of the grading is to separate out the industrial grade (No3), the standard grade (No2) and the premium grade roes (No1). Grade 1 can also be broken up into soft shell, or hard shell. This is important because not all caviar consumers appreciate Hard Shell caviar and prefer something softer. Finally the roe is checked for dead roe, which is graded out separately from the primary three.
Next comes the salting. In the US all red caviar production must be salted to a minimum of 3.2%, unless it is going to be canned. The caviar is then brine soaked for the allotted time by grade. The lower the grade of the red caviar, the longer it soaks. This is because immature roe has a weak shell, and the salt will help stabilize it and keep it from popping and leaking. The roe will then be packed in plastic trays, called bento trays, which are usually around 500g to 1kg, and vacuum sealed. At this point the red caviar is quickly frozen to a minimum of -15F. Much of it will be sold in this form, which is the best way to buy it because it will be the freshest. Many producers do not add any additional additives to it, but some will add sorbitol in order to mask the salt content; and also some producers may add some kind of preservatives to let it last longer once thawed. This kind of information will always be written on the labels and we recommend reading the labels carefully in order to make an educated decision on what kind of red caviar you wish to purchase.

If you go to the stores in search of salmon caviar, you will always find a different assortment of packaging. Always remember, that in Alaska, not a single major producer of red caviar packs their products in glass jars, metal tins or cans. These products exist due to repackaging from the original bento into these new containers. The way this is done is the re-packer will thaw out the bento, and then add preservatives into the red caviar.
Remember, if it is in a jar or a can, then by FDA law, it must have appropriate preservatives in it. There is no exception to this law, as failure to do so can cause an outbreak in botulism, which can be deadly. Many consumers of caviar believe that because it is not frozen that it is a “fresh” product. This is completely inaccurate as it is actually canned, like any other product you will buy on the shelf at your grocery store. Furthermore, food law states that these products no longer have to have their original date of production, nor the true expiration date on them. Also, be very wary of canned red caviar that does not state the species of its products. It is required by the FDA to state the exact species in the packaging, and any company that does not is most likely hiding something from you.

When you are at the store we recommend taking the following steps in order to make sure you find the caviar that you really want. Firstly we, do not recommend buying caviar “deli style”, where the red caviar sits in a refrigerated display case and is sold by requesting the amount you wish to purchase; especially if it is simply labeled as “red caviar” or “salmon caviar”. The reason is firstly, you have no way to know what is in that product. Nine out of Ten times even the store employees will not know what product they are selling. I personally had an experience where I saw in a store the label “wild salmon caviar” and decided to find out what kind of product it is. After 15 minutes of trying to find out the employee told me it was “Wild Atlantic Salmon Caviar”. There is no such thing as “Wild Atlantic Salmon”! All Atlantic Salmon is farm raised! How are you supposed to know what you are buying when even the store clerks may not even know?
Finally the question is how long has it been sitting in that display case? Once you thaw salmon caviar it will go bad in 30 days unless it is treated with preservatives. So what should you do? Make sure that the caviar you buy is firstly still frozen and in the original bento box. This way you can see that it has never been opened and exposed to the elements, and you will see the original production date or true expiration date so you will know whether that red caviar is from the latest season, or has been sitting around for years. The good thing about most bento boxes is that they have a see-through vacuum film and lids, which will allow you to assess if there is a high amount of frost on the red caviar. When it is frozen in production plants it is done so at such a low temperature that ice crystals do not have time to form. When it is held inside an industrial cold storage facility, it will keep that low temperature. Once it is placed in a conventional freezer, or is thawed and re-frozen in a conventional freezer, or was not maintained in a controlled freezer environment, then the caviar will begin building up a high amount of frost inside the packaging. Check to see if there is any of that frost. If there is, then avoid buying it! But do not worry if there is frost on the outside, as that is perfectly normal. So if the red caviar is still in its original bento packaging, has the original production or expiration date on it, and doesn’t have an excess amount of frost inside the vacuum packaging, then you have a good product!

When it comes to salmon caviar you can see that you have many options when it comes to the grading, quality and packaging. Not all red caviar is the same and not all red caviar is for everyone. Certain people prefer a specific type of red caviar, depending on the salt commodity, size of the roe and flavor of caviar. Just because one type of caviar didn’t work out, doesn’t mean that you won’t find one that fits your palette. What is your favorite red caviar? Why? Let us know!




Nikolai Nikitenko
Nikolai Nikitenko

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