How we tested
Caviar can be most simply defined as any kind of slightly salted fish eggs, or roe. The "true" caviar of gourmet reputation has traditionally been the roe of one of three species of sturgeon harvested from the rivers feeding into the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea: beluga sturgeon (beluga caviar), Russian sturgeon (osetra caviar), and stellate sturgeon (sevruga caviar). However, as these fish have been pushed to the brink of extinction by a combination of overfishing, poaching, and pollution, legal caviar from these waters is now either exorbitantly priced or unavailable. In an attempt to save these fish, many restaurateurs and caviar lovers have turned their attention to American caviar.
American fish roe can be labeled "caviar," with no other qualification, only if it comes from a sturgeon-related species, the most prevalent of which is the paddlefish (other types include lake sturgeon, hackleback sturgeon, and white sturgeon). Several popular American fish roe offerings come from species entirely unrelated to sturgeon, including salmon, bowfin, whitefish, and lumpfish. Roe from these varieties can be labeled "caviar" only if the name of the fish is included, as in "salmon caviar," "bowfin caviar," and so on.
To narrow the field, we took a two-step approach. First, we gathered 13 adventurous tasters to compare five readily available types of American caviar: paddlefish (the most available and reasonably priced sturgeon type), salmon, bowfin, whitefish, and lumpfish. We held a second tasting to choose a favorite brand of the winning type.
In round one, tasters preferred paddlefish caviar to that from other kinds of fish. Salmon caviar, for example, consisted of large eggs that had an overwhelming salmon flavor, while bowfish caviar tasted muddy and oily. In contrast, tasters found paddlefish caviar to be suitably briny and not overwhelmingly fishy.
We found five brands of paddlefish caviar affordably priced, between $16 and $25 per ounce. After a careful tasting, we recommend three brands: one that appealed more strongly to avowed caviar lovers; one with a milder taste that appealed to inexperienced caviar tasters; and a compromise candidate.