Every morning during the fall in Michigan’s thumb, I watch sport fishermen skimming by in boats outfitted with everything from baited poles to fancy outriggers. They are all after the same thing: salmon. Whether the catch is Atlantic, chinook or coho, it doesn’t much matter as long as they reel one in. Some have a knack for it, some get lucky, some just enjoy a quiet morning on the lake. But I like it most of all when someone brings a fish heavy with roe (or eggs) to my home, because it means we will get two treats out of one catch: caviar and a couple of smoked filets.
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Prized specimens from the endangered beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea have been illegal for sale in the United States since 2005. Certain lesser grades like sevruga and osetra are available but can be astronomically pricey, at over $4,000 per pound. But fresh eggs from locally caught salmon in the Great Lakes are quite a different matter. Few fishermen bother to save these precious jewels. Fewer still know how simple it is to cure the eggs and prepare fresh caviar. So you can understand why I felt a little giddy when I got my hands on a recent 10-pound catch with two skeins of roe that yielded 2 pounds of beautifully glistening eggs.
The process for transforming the eggs into caviar is deceptively simple and takes about an hour. It involves little more than preparing salt brine and biding your time. Once the eggs are brined to a level that won’t overpower their delicate fish essence, they are ready to serve and share. All that remains is to offer a simple cracker with a smear of sour cream, a mound of cured eggs and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper and chopped chives, or just a stunning spoonful to your grateful guests, and dig in.
Great Lakes Salmon Caviar
Fresh salmon roe (eggs) (see Note)
1 cup of kosher salt
8 cups of cold water
1. Place the salt and cold water in a large glass or stainless bowl and mix well until salt is dissolved.
2. Gently rinse each egg sac under cool running water to remove as much blood as possible and lower into the salted brine. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. While the eggs are curing, prepare a second bowl fitted with a colander.
4. After 30 minutes, remove the sacs from the refrigerator and place them in the second bowl and colander in a deep sink, reserving the brine.
5. Cover the eggs with hot running tap water (approximately 150 degrees). As the outer membrane is exposed to the heat, it will shrink and begin to pull away from the eggs, making it simple to gentle slough the eggs away from the membrane and into the colander. Within the sac will be threads of more membranes that can be carefully removed by hand.
6. Once the outer membrane is removed and the eggs are separated, continue to refresh the bowl with cool water and stir the eggs, gently rinsing them by hand to remove the smaller white membranes that will float to the surface and may still cling to the eggs. Drain and repeat the rinsing process until the water in the bowl runs clear. This may require several rinses. Remove the colander from the bowl, draining the clear water away from the eggs.
7. Return the eggs to the original salt brine and refrigerate for up to another 30 minutes. Check the eggs at 10-minute intervals, rinsing and tasting the eggs for your desired level of saltiness. Continue to brine if not salty enough. If too salty, replace the brine with fresh water and let the eggs rest. The water will draw out salt until the eggs reach your desired level of brine.
8. Drain the eggs from the brine and store in a clean glass container with tightly fitting lid. Caviar can be served immediately or safely stored in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days.
Salmon roe can be tricky to find if you don’t know a sport fisherman in salmon territory. Try making friends with a fishmonger instead, or check online purveyors.
Top photo: A dish of cured salmon roe, or caviar. Credit: Caroline J. Beck