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American Caviar

By Cook's Illustrated Published December 2005

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*