Photo Essay: Caviar Production @ Sterling Caviar, Sacramento County

I have to admit, having grown up near the Sacramento area, I was surprised to learn this week that Sacramento County is actually the epicenter of caviar production in the United States. Really? Sacramento County and caviar? Who would’ve known that California’s heartland would be the source of such an exotic commodity? Personally, I just would’ve never suspected this connection. However, when you consider the Sacramento area in terms its various resources, it actually makes a great deal of sense: Not only does the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supply a diverse selection of white sturgeon, but the proximity of UC Davis has also helped to pioneer and perfect the science of sustainable aquafarming.

A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to visit one of Sacramento’s top caviar producers, Sterling Caviar, located about 10 miles east of the Sacramento Airport (having flown out of Sacramento dozens of times in my life, this was also a total revelation; I had no clue that the rural expanse surrounding the Sacramento Airport contained a state-of-the-art aquaculture facility). During my visit to Sterling, I saw the entire process of caviar production, from the raising of the sturgeon to the final stages of packaging. With more than 20 years in aquafarming, Sterling sells its caviar to restaurants and chefs across America and the world, including Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Nobu Matsuhisa.

The following photo series covers the stages of harvesting. Click on any photo to enlarge. If you have any questions about caviar production, Sterling also hosts a moderated blog to respond to inquiries.

At eight years of age, a female white sturgeon is brought in for harvesting, after being farm-raised on property. Each sturgeon is weighed and measured, and a DNA sample is clipped from the fin. The sturgeon is also assigned a unique number, ensuring that its caviar will not be mixed with that of any other sturgeon and that it will be traceable for quality control.

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The sturgeon is bled before the incision.

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The belly of each sturgeon is carefully sliced open…

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… and the two roe sacs are removed. On average, the roe sacs account for about 15% of the sturgeon’s total body weight, although this number can fluctuate by a fairly wide degree. Although the butchering room is refrigerated, the roe sacs are immediately placed over ice. From here, the remainder of the sturgeon is butchered further, with the flesh being sold, and the odds and ends going to cat food production. No part of the fish is wasted.

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Once harvested, the roe sacs are brought into a separate room for refinement. The first step is to gently work the roe over a screened bowl…

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…which helps to separate the eggs from the bulk of the fatty tissue. The tags at the bottom of the picture contain the number that was assigned to this particular sturgeon.

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The caviar is then carefully rinsed and refined even further.

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This cylinder allows the smaller pieces of fatty tissue to float to the surface, where they can be siphoned away.

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Once free of the fatty tissue, the caviar is then allowed to drain. The tag on the over-turned bowl at the left is the number that was originally assigned to the sturgeon at harvesting.

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Once drained, each sturgeon’s yield is carefully weighed, and very specific amount of extra-fine salt is added, based upon this weight. Salt is the only addition to the caviar. No other preservatives are used.

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The salt is thoroughly, but gently, mixed with the eggs.

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The finished caviar is spread onto screens for grading and for packing. Again, each batch represents the yield from just one specific sturgeon. Labels will be printed with the appropriate data.

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The caviar is loosely packed into the tins.

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This tin is ready to seal. The caviar will be stored at 27F during the aging process. Over that time, the tins will be flipped periodically to ensure an even distribution of salts and oils. As with wine, as the caviar approaches its peak in age, more and more complex flavors will begin to emerge.

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3 comments to Photo Essay: Caviar Production @ Sterling Caviar, Sacramento County

  • ElGordo

    Awesome post! Do they offer regular tours?

  • The Accidental Wino

    I don’t think that they do. I’m pretty sure that they limit their tours to the staff of restaurants that carry their products, which is how I was able to go. We had to don all the gear (smock, hair net, gloves, mask, shoe covers) that you see the employees wearing in the photos, so there are sanitation concerns that probably prevent them from allowing much traffic through the facility.

  • Sascha Jansen

    I have had the good fortune to enjoy your caviar products. It is amazing.

    May we order directly from you?

    Thank you,

    Sascha

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