Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Caviar from the Great Lakes

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Waking up at 4 a.m. to go fishing on a cold Michigan morning, driving an hour, and then sitting in a small boat on a windy lake may not be everyone's idea of a good time. Mist often rises over the lake, and even with your headlamp, you can barely see the end of your fishing rod.  Other boats slip in and out of view, their lights twinkling in the pitch dark of the pre-dawn hours. 

Then the sun begins to rise, turning the sky a dazzling red. You cast and recast your line and wait for a slam at the end of your rod. It's fall and prime time for Lake Michigan chinook salmon. If all goes well, in the two or three hours after dawn, you'll land one or two fresh, silver salmon from Lake Michigan. And if you are very lucky, at least one of them will be a female, full of shiny pearl-like, coral-colored eggs. Eggs, which  by the end of the day, you will transform into sumptuous caviar.

Strictly speaking, salmon caviar is not real caviar. That designation goes only to caviar made from the roe of wild sturgeon from the Caspian and Black Seas. Beluga, the most famous of the caviars - the favorite of  James Bond, the hero of Ian Fleming's novels - sells for $200-$300 per ounce. These days, however, you would have to be a spy - or a crook - to get your hands on real beluga caviar. The sale and import of beluga has been banned since 2005 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species

Originating 200 million years ago, sturgeon have outlasted the dinosaurs, but are now one of the planet's most threatened species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Native to subtropical, temperate and sub-Arctic waters in Europe, Asia and North America, sturgeon can live up to 100 years, reach lengths of seven to 12 feet, and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Prior to European settlement of the North American continent, a species of lake sturgeon was abundant in the Great Lakes.  By the late 1800s, the commercial catch of lake sturgeon in the lakes averaged more than 4 million pounds per year. In 1929, the catch had declined to only 2,000 pounds and Lake Michigan was closed to the commercial harvest of sturgeon. Habitat loss, pollution, destruction of spawning areas due to deforestation and dam construction also contributed to the demise of the lake sturgeon fishery. 

A remnant population of lake sturgeon stills exists in the Great Lakes today and according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, lake sturgeon throughout the Great Lakes appear to be on a rebound. Commercial fishing remains prohibited and sport fishing is highly regulated, so it may be a long time before any true caviar is available from the Great Lakes. 

On the other hand, Lake Michigan is teeming with salmon and a few years ago, I started wondering if fresh-water salmon eggs could be used for caviar. Turns out they can. So one day, I dropped by the dock where the fishing boats come in and asked a guy who was about to toss a beautiful fresh egg sack into the grinder if I could have it. "Gonna use it for bait?" he asked.  "No, I'm going to make caviar," I said. "Better you than me," he replied. Indeed!

Since then, JR and I have been catching our own salmon, early in the season when they are just entering the river from Lake Michigan. Most of our fishing in the Pere Marquette River in front of our cabin is catch and release, but we always take two or three salmon from the lake. This year we kept two large females, which in addition to producing beautiful fillets for grilling and smoking, also gave us 64 ounces of delicious, shimmering caviar.

Making caviar is a fairly simply process. The skein holding the eggs is slit open and the eggs are removed, which is the most difficult part since each egg is firmly attached to the egg sac. With practice, this part of the process can be accomplished in about an hour.  After that, the eggs are washed and put in a brine solution.  Here is the recipe:

Salmon Caviar

1 cup salmon eggs
2 cups of cold water
1/2 cup Kosher salt

In a glass bowl, mix the salt into the cold water and stir until it is dissolved. Put in the eggs and leave for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with a nonmetalic spoon. Drain the caviar and put it in small glass jars. Store the caviar in the refrigerator where, in my experience, it will remain fresh for two or three months -  if it lasts that long.

According to tradition, beluga caviar should be served with a mother of pearl spoon and eaten by itself without garnish. We like our salmon caviar on toast served over a spread that we make with hummus (without tahini) and mashed avocado.

If you are lucky enough, like us, to live near salmon waters and have lots of caviar, then I recommend my favorite recipe, caviar pasta. 

Pasta with caviar sauce

Linguini or spaghetti
olive oil or butter
chopped chives
juice and peel of a lemon

While the pasta cooks, put the olive oil or butter and the chives into a pan and sauté briefly.  Add the lemon juice and lemon peel.  When the pasta is cooked al dente, drain it and put it back in the pasta pan with the sauce on a low flame just until it is good and hot. (If it's too dry, simply add more olive oil or butter.) Remove from the heat and gently fold in 2-3 ounces (or more) of caviar.  Serve topped with another dollop of caviar and chopped parsley.

Sturgeon farming is now being practiced in many countries that have or had a native sturgeon population, including France, Italy and the United States. Markey's, the only company in the United States authorized to raise beluga sturgeon, also raises several other varieties of sturgeon on a farm in southern Florida.  Their stock now numbers 100,000 live fish.  Their beluga caviar is not yet for sale, but a beluga-type caviar, known as Osetra, is available online at Markey's for about $300 an ounce.

Salmon caviar from Alaska may be available at a Whole Foods store near you for about $16.99 an ounce. Or if you are in the neighborhood, come on by - we still have a jar or two of Michigan salmon caviar in the fridge.  But hurry, because it's going fast.

(with a caviar producer)

Photo by JR


  1. Very interesting! I I learned something today. Thanks

  2. Mille merci pour ton dernier Oyster A.

  3. Good reading nice fish. Greg

  4. The thought of pasta with caviar has me salivating!!! M.L.

  5. Your "caviar" blog made my mouth water! We love the stuff, but have rarely had anything that's truly good. Plan to go to Whole Foods tomorrow though. Enjoy your caviar and know that there is someone in Florida greeeeeen with envy. A.L.

  6. Nice fish how big was she

  7. Probably 20-25 pounds and 40 inches in length. The biggest of the Great Lake Chinook salmon can be 50 pounds and up to 58 inches in length.

  8. VERY interesting article. You painted a perfect picture of an early morning fishing trip up north. It reminded me of when my dad would rent a cabin in northern Minnesota and we would go fishing under similar conditions. Though we would fish for northern pike and walleyes with Daredevil Spoons, we usually ended up giving up and catching lake perch or sunfish. The silver salmon that the two of you are holding are such beautiful fish... Simply gorgeous! They are about 200 times larger than the fish we ended up catching on our yearly trip. David

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  10. For this dish some special caviar is necessary? May you prompt such https://www.red-caviar.com/products/rc454grc/red-pearl-salmon-red-caviar-454g-1lb-can will approach for example? if yes that how to define its quality?

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Thanks for your comments.