Caviar - How It's Made And Why It's So EXPENSIVE!
Caviar: how is it made and why is it so expensive? Let's find out.Food
Caviar is one of the most sought-after delicacies in the entire world. But while it may look fancy doled out alongside thousand-dollar bottles of champagne, have you ever wondered where it comes from? Or what makes certain types so expensive?
Why is the caviar in Walmart sold for a couple of dollars per ounce but some varieties have a staggering price of a couple of thousand dollars per ounce? What’s the difference? Where does it come from? And what even is it? Let's take a look into how the most expensive food on the planet is made.
Let me stir up your appetite by taking a look at some of the most high-end caviar money can buy. Iranian Almas caviar is officially recognized as the most expensive caviar in the world by the Guinness Book of World records.
At its most expensive, this stuff can cost upwards of $34,500 per kilo, working out to a little under $1000 per ounce. So, a teaspoon of this stuff on its own can cost $100.
That’s a lot, but unofficially, the prices get even crazier. In 2015, a caviar concoction called Strottarga Bianco entered the market at an utterly insane $113,630 per kilo. You could literally buy a top end Tesla model for that price!
Created by specialty family business Grüll, the product was exclusively made to order, with the option of having finely powdered 22-karat gold leaf mixed into the concoction. This would have brought the final price for just a teaspoon of this stuff to an unbelievable $480!
These supposedly taste lightly salted, with the delicate, distinct beads gliding over the tongue and bursting when bitten into, revealing a buttery, creamy texture.
Obviously, this must be some really good caviar. But in the not-so-distant past, high quality caviar like this didn’t used to cost so much. In the US, back in the 19th century, real, top-quality caviar was sold for mere pennies on the dollar.
In some places, like saloons and shops, caviar was actually given out for free as a sort of side dish, like peanuts, because it’s saltiness encouraged patrons to drink more!
Around the same time in Europe, fisherman routinely fed caviar to their pigs, or simply left it on the beach to rot! Believe it or not, just before the start of World War 1, a kilogram of caviar only cost ever so slightly more than a loaf of bread!
So, what happened? Well, to understand that we need to know more about what caviar actually is and how it’s made.
What Is Caviar?
To put it bluntly, and unappetizingly, caviar is a very fancy way of saying ‘unfertilized fish eggs,’ or more accurately, fish roe. But not all fish roe is caviar. Just look at the picture below, in which one is caviar, and the other is not but it's hard to tell them apart from a glance.
What’s the big difference? While just about all fish can produce fish roe, there’s only one fish whose eggs are officially considered caviar quality. It’s not the eggs of the Capelin fish, which is the roe that makes up Walmart’s misleadingly named $4 ‘caviar’.
The only roe officially recognized as true caviar comes from the Sturgeon fish. It’s one of the most ancient fish still swimming around in the world today, with its origins dating back to the upper Cretaceous period some 145 to 66 million years ago. There are 27 different sub-species of these fancy fish, all of which grow quite large, averaging about 7 to 12 ft in length.
The largest ever recorded though, a Beluga Sturgeon, was discovered in the Volga estuary in 1827, and measured in at a colossal 23 ft 7 inches long. That put its weight at an almost surreal 3,500 lbs, making it roughly the average weight of a car.
Other popular species, such as the Ossetra, Kaluga and Sevruga typically measure in between 7 and 12 ft in length, meaning they weigh between 1000 and 2000 lbs on average. It’s not the weight of a car, but at the top end, that’s still almost twice as heavy as a grand piano!
For perspective, an absolute beast of a sturgeon fish was caught back in 1922, measuring in at 23 ft and weighing almost 2,700 lbs. So, the record breaker was a whole 800 lbs heavier than that!
And when you consider that the ovaries of the female fish, the part where all their eggs are made, can make up a whopping 30% of the Sturgeon’s overall body weight, you get an idea of just how much caviar a single fish can produce.
Assuming we’re dealing with a 2000 lb fish with big ol’ ovaries, that fish alone could be carrying up to 600 lbs of eggs! For contrast, human ovaries only weigh about a quarter ounce. With the average woman weighing about 170lbs, they don’t even account for 1% of their bodyweight.
In fact, they don’t even make up 0.1% of their body weight. They make up a tiny 0.0001%! If 30% of a woman’s body was suddenly made up by her ovaries, they’d be roughly the size and weight of her thighs! Like women don’t have it hard enough already.
But enough of this theoretical ovary talk, let’s get back to the Sturgeon! These big fish tend to live in freshwater, coastal waters, and inner seas around the world.
They were once a thriving species, living primarily in rivers and estuaries leading to the Caspian and Black Seas, and to lesser extent other rivers in North America, Europe, and Asia. Alongside being widespread, these big fish can also live to be up to 100 years old!
However, the sheer scale of fishing overexploitation, pollution, and habitat degradation from humans meant that by 1997, the wild population of sturgeon had dropped so much that 4 of the once plentiful sub-species were believed to be extinct!
Pollution and dam building meant it was almost impossible for the sturgeon to reproduce at the rates the humans were hunting them. Not to mention that while one female sturgeon can lay up to 700,000 eggs at a time, only 1 in 50,000 survive into adulthood.
The entire sturgeon species was then classed as endangered and placed under a last-ditch protection act to save them from being wiped out. So, in 2006, the wild caviar trade was completely banned.
This came after 9 major caviar producing countries failed to prove to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species that wild Sturgeon farming was a sustainable practice.
After that, these nine countries, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro and Ukraine, were limited to producing caviar only from farmed sturgeons.
The fish proved so popular, humans hunted them to the brink of extinction out in the wild, mainly for their eggs! This accounts for part of the price hike seen over the years, but it’s not the sole reason why these eggs now fetch top dollar. To understand that we need to take a look into exactly how caviar is farmed.
Being a very big fish, Sturgeon needs a lot of space to grow and thrive, with well-cared-for fish producing the best quality caviar. As such, these facilities need to be huge, with some spanning hundreds of acres, each with pools and ponds dedicated to raising Sturgeon from larva to fully grown fish.
Inside these facilities, the water has to be filtered and reconditioned repeatedly. The water parameters, like oxygen and water temperature, have to be strictly controlled and measured meticulously.
As you can probably tell, raising high-quality sturgeon is not cheap! The construction and equipment costs of a small caviar plant start at a minimum of $2 million, and that’s without the costs of labor, additional equipment, or the fish for that matter!
Young sturgeon require a high protein diet and constant feeding as they develop. On top of that, Sturgeon are carnivores, typically feeding on invertebrates, crustaceans, and other small fish.
So premium fish flakes aren’t going to be enough to keep these fish in tip top condition; these guys need industrial amounts of seafood to thrive! Yet another expense to add to the bill.
Once the fish finally factor into the equation, sources suggest you can expect to pay anywhere from 60 to 600 dollars and upwards per fish, and even then, the reward isn’t instant.
If you think about chickens, farmers can identify if they’re male or female at 6 to 8 weeks old, and once the males are filtered out, they can start producing eggs at about 18 weeks old. But depending on the sub-species, sturgeon can’t be identified as male or female until they’re at least 2 years old, although this wait can be as long as 8 years!
Because of this, most farmers will perform ultrasound tests to confirm whether they’re male or female at the earliest chance they get! The females are then tagged electronically for identification, separated from the males, and are monitored as they grow.
But just because their sex has been identified doesn’t mean it’s time to reap the profits, not by a long shot! Because, sub-species depending, it naturally takes Sturgeon around 10 years to reach the maturity required to produce eggs!
The Beluga Sturgeon, one of the largest and most prized varieties, takes at least 19 years to reach natural maturity. Siberian sturgeon can take up to 20 years, with Kaluga Sturgeon taking up to 23! Although when they’re farmed or in captivity, this wait can drop by up to half thanks to all the hormones the farmers use!
So, from egg to egg, it can take a sturgeon farmer nearly a decade to raise these fish to the point where they’re finally valuable. But even then, Sturgeon don’t develop their eggs overnight!
Female sturgeon then needs to endure ‘artificial winters’ in order to fully develop their eggs, which is achieved by reducing water temperatures to 39°F and below and manipulating levels of light to imitate winter conditions.
The females are kept in this environment without food to imitate the same breeding experience they would have in the wild. But in order to ensure the highest possible quality of the caviar, these eggs have to be harvested at the prime moment of maturity.
The farmers figure this out with regular ultrasound scans performed on the fish. Every single scan has a big price tag attached to it, as the fish needs to be carefully anesthetized using sedatives, exposure to carbon dioxide, or a use of very low electric currents.
This is an expensive process that needs to be repeated for every female fish, and considering each of these farms can house thousands of female sturgeons, it’s neither cheap nor quick!
Biopsies, which are the removal of small samples of tissue, are also regularly taken to assess the quality of the eggs produced, as well as size and color. It’s only after all this testing and analysis that a sturgeon can finally be determined ready for harvesting! And this is the part where things get messy.
Once a ripe fish is identified, farmers begin a process called ‘purging’. The roe of fish that are cultured in recirculating aquaculture systems, like those raised in farms, can acquire earthy or musty flavors because of certain bacterial species present in the filtration process.
To remove this unpalatable flavor from the fish and its eggs, the sturgeon is placed in extra cold, clean water, and goes without food for four to six weeks, mimicking their natural breeding habits. It’s incredibly important that the fish are not stressed during this process, as they will reabsorb their eggs.
If this does happen, then the Sturgeon will require at least another year or two in order to produce more eggs. But assuming it all goes off without a hitch, then they’ll extract the caviar from the fish in one of three ways, which are techniques used by all variety of roe farmers around the world.
In the more widely used slaughter method, each individual sturgeon is stunned before it is slain. From the very moment it dies, it’s essential the caviar is removed as quickly as possible, as chemicals are released by its body that can negatively affect the taste and quality of the roe.
An incision is made in the abdomen and the two egg sacs are removed and cleaned, each of which can contain millions of eggs. This is generally the go-to method used by roe farmers around the world, regardless of the type of fish they’re raising.
The rest of the fish is set aside to be harvested for other products, including its meat and swimming bladder so that almost nothing goes to waste. After raising that fish for 10 years all for one egg collection, you’d hope they make use of every last part of it!
The second method is the Vivace method, also known as ‘milking’, which sees the fish survive the harvesting process. The fish is injected with hormones to induce labor, and a farmer effectively milks the fish by pressing down on its belly, forcing the eggs to squirt out in a stream.
This not only preserves the life of the sturgeon, but it also means farmers are able to get multiple batches of eggs out of their fish until they reach an age where they naturally stop producing eggs.
This is what’s commonly known as ‘no-kill’ caviar. But there are several issues with this method: one, the hormones used to induce labor release chemicals into the eggs that spoil the flavor. And two, because of the stress and pressure physically placed on the caviar during the milking, the resulting caviar is soft and mushy.
It’s for these reasons that no-kill caviar isn’t considered commercially viable, with many farmers opting for the traditional method instead.
The third and final method is another no-kill caviar collection technique, but it’s not necessarily cruelty free. This is the C-Section method, where a small incision is made on the sturgeon’s belly and the eggs are carefully scooped out before the wound is sealed back up.
To ensure the eggs keep their texture and don’t turn mushy when harvested from the live fish, they must be rinsed in a water-calcium solution immediately. While this fortifies the eggs, it can make for an unpleasant texture, which means the entire endeavor is a lot riskier to the quality of the eggs than method number 1.
On top of that, removing the egg sacs causes infertility in the fish, so it’ll never carry eggs again. Plus, the wound can quickly become infected. Overall, the complications associated with this method make it one of the least profitable and commercially viable.
Processing the Caviar
The journey of the eggs doesn’t stop with the harvesting. Once removed, the harvested eggs, usually the entire egg sacs, are rubbed gently on a fine mesh to remove and separate unwanted substances from the eggs, such as the sac membranes.
The eggs are then washed and filtered again before damaged eggs and other remaining impurities are removed with tweezers. Sounds a little exaggerated, but seriously, they comb through every last egg to ensure each one is up to standard. Whoever’s job it is to sift through millions of eggs with a single pair of tweezers must have the patience of a saint!
The eggs are then weighed, and a carefully calculated amount of very fine salt is added and mixed in to act as a preservative. Lightly salted caviar is called “malossol”, which is Russian for lightly salted, and has a salt content of less than 5%. Most high-quality caviar contains less than 3% salt.
Caviar with a salt content of up to 8% is called salted caviar or semi-preserved caviar. Its flavor is less fresh, and its quality is considered far less superior.
If the caviar is made up of more than 10% of salt, the product is called “payusnaya” and forms a jellylike cake that can be kept for up to three months! But even in this form, 500g of sturgeon payusnaya can still sell for upwards of $265!
Once processed to a satisfactory standard, the caviar is then packed by hand into lacquer-lined tins. All air is removed from the space when the caviar is packed in, as any that remains in the tin will chemically interact with eggs and negatively affect their flavor.
The caviar is then refrigerated and aged for about three months in order to further develop and deepen the flavor. Then it’s repackaged into commercial tins and, finally, after all these incredibly time-consuming processes have taken place, the caviar is at last ready to be sold. The finished product is then graded to indicate quality and show producers how much the final product is worth.
Different producers have their own grading systems, but it is generally determined by the size and texture of the eggs in a given batch. Larger, firmer eggs are generally considered to be of higher quality, as their texture enhances the smooth and buttery flavor that connoisseurs value and crave.
With so much work, time, and money going into the production of all these different types of caviars, you can start to see why some of them cost so much. Let’s take a look at some specific ones we mentioned earlier: Beluga, Ossetra, Kaluga and Sevruga, starting with that last one.
So, Sevruga Malossol, that’s the freshest, lightly salted variant available, is sold in 4-ounce jars commercially for about $450.
Kaluga eggs are a little smaller than Sevruga, meaning 4 ounces of it is priced slightly cheaper at around $300. Ossetra egg sizes sit in between, with slightly larger eggs than the Kaluga but not as big as the Sevruga, putting it at around $360 per 4-ounce tin.
But the undisputed caviar king breed is definitely the Beluga variety; after all, it makes sense for the largest species of sturgeon to produce the largest eggs. And for these, a mere half an ounce is priced at $425, that’s just three teaspoons worth!
According to certified Gourmet Food Store Marky’s, a single ounce can cost $830. And a whole kilo of the stuff, some 35.2 oz, costs $24,000!
But even at that extortionate rate, it’s still not the rarest variety in the world. That honor belongs to white caviar. While most caviar is black, gray, or even a slight green in hue, white caviar is, as the name suggests, completely white.
It’s produced by Albino Sturgeon, which are fish that have a congenital absence of melanin, the pigment that gives color to its scales, eyes, fins, and even its eggs! It’s a rare genetic defect, one that’s believed to occur in less than 1 in 20,000 fish.
The resulting eggs resemble little pearls, hence why some producers label their caviar as ‘white pearl caviar’!
While this novel coloring can add a little extra onto the price, it doesn’t really affect the flavor, and so the cost variance remains pegged to the type of sturgeon the white pearls have been retrieved from.
So, how do you inflate the price of the world’s already priciest food? You add gold into it. Literally.
Iranian Almas Caviar, a type of albino beluga Sturgeon caviar, ups the ante by presenting their white caviar in a diamond encrusted, 23-karat gold tin, only 2 of which were ever made. Thanks to this extravagant presentation, the caviar sold for a staggering $34,500 per kilo at its peak!
Today, the Almas Ossetra variety, which doesn’t come with the super fancy tin and has eggs slightly smaller than the Beluga variety, still retails for around $13,445 per kilo.
While that’s not as expensive, for perspective, you could still by some 2314 Big Macs with all that money!
And yet, that’s still not the most expensive caviar out there. That title firmly belongs to the Strottarga Bianco, also known as white gold caviar, produced exclusively by Austrian company Grüll.
Unlike most caviars, this brand dehydrates albino sturgeon roe and grinds it up after it’s harvested to give it a unique texture. Because it’s dehydrated like this, it takes approximately 5 kilos of roe, that’s some 11 lbs, to make just 1 kilo, a little over 2.2 lbs, of the all-important caviar.
Only then is a finely grated layer of 22-karat edible gold leaf added to really hike up that price point. The gold leaf itself doesn’t add anything to the flavor, it’s purely to make this caviar the most expensive it can possibly be.
How expensive? A mammoth $113,630 per kilo. It works out roughly to $3220 per ounce, or $480 per teaspoon. To put that in perspective, for a single teaspoon of this stuff, you could buy more than 82 Big Macs.
I mentioned this at the beginning of the article, but after seeing the whole process and realizing how much time and effort goes into producing a single tin of this stuff, suddenly that insanely high price point is starting to make sense!