Pure, fresh Oklahoma paddlefish caviar pulled from the Grand River and processed by experienced hands at the state’s Paddlefish Research Center is setting a standard in the international marketplace — but it’s not as popular here at home.
It’s so precious and valuable that black-market poachers are a genuine threat to the species and are the subject of intensive law enforcement efforts. It’s so closely regulated that an Oklahoma fisherman who catches a 50-pound female may have 10 pounds of the roe in his hands — but he can legally retain only 3 pounds for personal use.
Most don’t keep any of it, however. They either flush it downstream with the rest of the fish guts or they save chunks of it for catfish bait (the livers are good catfish bait, too). So why isn’t a chilled jar of that pure, fresh Oklahoma paddlefish caviar stocked in Oklahoma pantries right along with the pokeberry wine and sand plum jelly?
Do the math
Cruise the Internet and you’ll find you can buy the good stuff from gourmet food shops for about $35 or $40 an ounce, plus $35 for delivery. Some quick math shows that, at roughly $70 per ounce, those 3 legal pounds you just tossed off the side of the boat would be worth more than $3,000 if processed, packaged and shipped.
Certainly, it’s worth keeping.
Perhaps part of the reason is that caviar is shrouded in mystery. At the state’s Paddlefish Research Center, entry into the egg-processing room is limited and cameras are allowed to point only in select directions. The eggs, sold wholesale at auction, are packed in containers marked with special labels and sealed with a special tape to foil would-be copycats.
“The caviar industry guards its secrets well,” said Brandon Brown, paddlefish research director for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “There are YouTube videos out there, there’s some stuff on the Internet about how to do it, but we don’t give away the trade secrets.”
The biologists are all about research and managing the paddlefish habitat and population and not so much about selling caviar.
“The caviar is just a bonus,” Brown said. “We take advantage of something that would otherwise go to waste.”
But that doesn’t mean they don’t take the processing seriously. Oklahoma caviar does indeed set a market standard.
“Our caviar is very, very good quality,” Brown said. “Buyers serving high-end clients want it from Oklahoma.”
That quality is due, in part, to how it is processed — the center takes only live fish and immediately submerges them in an icy 38-degree bath — but also to the relatively clear waters in which they live.
“All fish, to some extent, develop flavors based on where they live,” he said.
The state annually sells more than 11,000 pounds on the wholesale market to the highest bidder. Depending on the market, it typically brings a little more than $100 a pound for top-quality eggs.
“The standard was set by beluga sturgeon caviar, which is black, so the darker the eggs the better,” Brown said. About a third of the annual batch is of secondary quality — it’s gray — and a very small portion, about 1 or 1.5 percent, is gold, he said.
“Some of it is nearly lemon yellow, but it’s pretty rare,” Brown said. “It tastes the same, same texture, and I think it’s beautiful to look at, but overseas it’s the least valuable — you can’t hardly give it away.”
Some have kicked around the idea of packaging the gold caviar for use in Oklahoma.
“We’re considering selling some of the gold locally, but we’re talking about a very small amount,” Brown said.
In the meantime, Oklahomans could be processing and making their own and stocking their own refrigerators with this homegrown gourmet treat.
Knowing what good caviar tastes like is a good first step.
“It’s not fishy tasting, and it’s not too salty,” Brown said. “It’s almost a buttery, nutty flavor. ... People say it tastes like the ocean smells.”
Two videos online are instructive for those who might want to make their own caviar. A five-minute YouTube video from Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made” program at a sturgeon hatchery shows steps that appear similar to instructions for paddlefish roe offered by the good folks at Kentucky State University’s Aquaculture Research Center.
KSU raises paddlefish at its hatchery and has posted a short YouTube video showing the basic processing steps for making caviar, but a few details are missing in the instructions, like what kind of salt is best to use, how much salt should be used and how long the eggs should be brined and how it should be stored.
For the full instructions we had to contact retired Kentucky State University aquaculture professor Steven Mims, who has written a book with colleague William Shelton titled “Paddlefish Aquaculture” due to be published in July by Wiley and Son Inc.
The instructions are indeed out there. Whether Oklahomans will want to take advantage of the recipe — well, that is another question.