UPDATE: June, 23, 2013: I’ve since modified my method for doing this, and it’s reflected in the recipe below. My original method is in the body of the blog post, if you’re interested. And as a side note, I’ve now done this with unripe salmon eggs, which are the size of sturgeon caviar, and it’s great! ~Hank
Caviar has always had a hold on me. It is a mysterious ingredient, almost otherworldy; the individual eggs look like jewels from an alien planet. Caviar tastes briny and vaguely floral, and the textural surprise of the pop in your mouth has led more than one writer to liken it to Pop Rocks for adults.
I’ve eaten all sorts of caviar, from spendy Osetra sturgeon caviar to our own California white sturgeon eggs, to Paddlefish roe (also known as “lumpfish”) to the wonderful little eggs from flying fish (tobiko), capelin and whitefish, which is a golden yellow. I’ve also eaten caviar from trout and salmon.
So when I caught a nice hen steelhead last weekend and saw it was full of eggs, I knew I needed to make caviar. The eggs were just so pretty!
I’d read about a general method of making caviar in a book called The Philosopher Fish, which involves gently removing the eggs from the skein — the membrane holding them together — rinsing them, salting them and drying them. It seemed pretty easy, which alarmed me: How could something so mysterious be so easy to create? It didn’t seem fair.
I delved into some more research, and it is indeed that easy. The art comes in the details: How do you get the eggs out of the skein? How much salt? How long to brine or rub the eggs? What temperature do you store them at?
So I used an amalgam of the methods I’d read about. I brined the eggs for a half hour in the fridge. Then I ran the skein under hot tap water, which shrunk the membrane and let the eggs drop into a colander. I then returned the eggs to the brine for another 30 minutes. I rinsed them off and let them drain in the colander for 15 minutes. Then I packaged them into a clean glass jar in the fridge. Done!
Aren’t they the coolest things ever? I have a hard time not taking them out of the fridge just to look at them. The steelhead caviar is supposed to hold for 2-3 weeks in the fridge, but I doubt it’ll make it that long — we’ll eat it long before then.
I prefer my caviar straight, served in a special spoon, so you can linger over the qualities of this caviar versus that one; this is what the Russians do when they serve the three classic sturgeon caviars: Beluga, Sevruga and Osetra. In case anyone cares, I am particularly fond of Osetra, which is pretty close to our caviar made from California white sturgeon. (You can buy California caviar here.)
Remove from your mind the notion that the only good caviar comes from sturgeon. The tobiko and masago you see in sushi restaurants is caviar from the flying fish and the capelin, a kind of herring. It really is like pop rocks. Whitefish caviar is even better, and is a beautiful canary color. Lumpfish is like a larger sturgeon caviar, but trout and salmon caviar is its own thing: large, luxurious, and slightly fatty — I saw thousands of minute fat droplets floating on the top of the brine when I made it.
When combined with a larger dish, caviar can become an accent that makes a good dish great.
I made a pasta dish with flaked steelhead meat last night, mixed with toasted pine nuts, parsley, shallots, olive oil, Meyer lemon juice — and a spoonful of steelhead caviar. The caviar’s color and pop really made the dish.
It also served well as a garnish for a simple Japanese dish I made two days ago, where I wrapped the steelhead in buttered foil with some rehydrated matsutake mushrooms, sake and lemon slices, then baked it for 20 minutes.
(Click for the full Japanese baked steelhead recipe.)
Will this method work for other fish roes? I don’t see why not. I imagine the salting times and care you will need to dislodge the eggs will change, but the basic technique shouldn’t change. I’ll have to try this with other eggs in the future. Do any of you make your own caviar? How do you do it? And how do you eat it?
How to Make Caviar
Making caviar at home is not nearly so hard as you might think. It is a miraculous product, beautiful as jewels with a briny pop that adds color and texture to all sorts of dishes. And freshly made caviar will last 2 weeks in the fridge, too — if you keep it in a tightly sealed (preferably glass) container sunk into a larger container of ice. Keep replenishing the ice as it melts.
This recipe works with both small and large-egged roes, such as those from herring and shad, trout, salmon or steelhead. The picture above is of steelhead caviar. I’ve also done it with unripe roe from salmon, which works, but is harder to get off the skein.
Makes about 1 pint.
Prep Time: 60 minutes
- 1 full skein of steelhead, large trout roe or silver salmon roe, about 1 pound
- 1 cup kosher salt or pickling salt
- Mix 1/2 cup salt and 1 quart cool water until the salt is all dissolved. Soak the roe sacs for 5 to 10 minutes in the salt water in the fridge.
- Get the faucet running with warm water roughly 105°F to 115°F, or heat cool tap water to this temperature — some people fear that hot tap water can add harsh minerals to their food. Either way works. Fill a metal or glass bowl with the warm water.
- Dunk a few skeins of roe at a time in the warm water. Keep the others in the brine. Gently massage the eggs out of the skeins with your fingers under the surface of the warm water. They will float away and sink. Discard the skeins. Have a fine-meshed sieve ready. Gently drain the water through the sieve and catch the eggs. Spray them with cold water from the sink, picking out clumps or stray bits of membrane. Put the eggs in a bowl in the fridge while you repeat the process with the rest of the eggs.
- Make a new brine with the other 1/2 cup of salt and another quart of water. Dunk the eggs in the brine for 5 minutes, or until they begin to fall to the bottom. Taste them and if they are salty enough for you, drain them into a fine-meshed sieve. You can brine for up to 30 minutes. Any longer and they will be very salty.
- Pour into a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks, but they will lose quality over time.