How to Caviar: The simple, affordable holiday appetizer that’s sure to impress

An assortment of blinis with shots of vodka // Photo by Aaron Job

An assortment of blinis with shots of vodka // Photo by Aaron Job

I

f you want to greet your dinner guests with an appetizer they’ll talk about through New Year’s and beyond, we suggest caviar. It’s a surprisingly affordable way to entertain with a splash of retro style. All you need to do is learn how to make blini (which are only slightly fussier pancakes) and buy caviar (which is only as daunting as reaching for your credit card).

Like so many supposedly fancy foods, caviar has historically been a peasant dish. With roots in Eastern Europe and Russia, it’s an assembly of things that weren’t particularly dear to anyone back in the day—a humble union of toothsome blini, soothing sour cream, and the salty pop of fish roe.

You can buy enough top-flight caviar with $50 to feed a dozen or more guests. Because the caviar itself is so salty and richly flavored, you need only a tiny dollop of the stuff to accent your sour cream and scallions-loaded blini—which are made of cheap pantry staples and carry the burden of filling people up with calories.

Here’s how you do it:

1. Buy caviar

A variety of caviars from the Minsk, a Russian market in Eagan, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

A variety of caviars from the Minsk, a Russian market in Eagan, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

You can find a wide array of fish roe at specialty retailers like Coastal Seafoods, or Russian markets like Minsk Market in Eagan, where caviar can be found in the deli case.

Tins of herring roe (about $1 an ounce) or salmon roe ($2 an ounce) are great on a budget. Spendier choices include local whitefish roe, the flying fish roe you see on sushi menus called tobiko ($7–10 an ounce) and Russian sturgeon caviar (about $18 an ounce.)

Tiny herring roe have a mild, fish-forward flavor with a delicate textural pop. Salmon roe is often more pungent, tasting like salmon flesh but more so, bursting with intensity. But real-deal Russian sturgeon caviar, as you’d hope from the price, offers the most complex and satisfying experience—unctuous, almost creamy in texture, fruity like olive oil, and deeply with a saline finish.

You can do a caviar night with just herring and salmon roe, and it’ll be a brilliant appetizer for about $10. If you splurge for the $55 jar of sturgeon roe, consider adding on the other two varieties, as well—it creates a veritable caviar bar.

2. Buy fixings

Build a platter with good sour cream (local and organic is worth the effort), finely chopped scallions or chives, finely chopped raw onions, chopped egg yolks and egg whites, fresh chopped dill, and lemon wedges.

3. Make your blini

A blini on the griddle // Photo by Aaron Job

A blini on the griddle // Photo by Aaron Job

Ingredients

 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup buckwheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
1 cup warm milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 large egg, separated

Directions

Mix your flours, salt, and yeast and make a well in the center. Pour in the warm milk, mix until smooth, cover, and let rise until roughly doubled (about an hour).

Stir your cooled melted butter and egg yolk into the batter. In another bowl, whisk the egg white until stiff but not dry, and then fold into the batter. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes.

Preheat your pan, skillet, or electric griddle to medium-high (no butter or cooking spray necessary) and drop heaping tablespoons of batter without crowding it. These should expand into roughly two-inch diameter round pancakes. Cook for about a minute, until bubbles form and break, and then flip and cook another 30–45 seconds.

Arrange blini with fixings on a tray and serve while still warm. Spread your blini with sour cream, sprinkle on your desired combination of fixings, and top with a little dollop of roe. This recipe makes about 15–18 blini. Assume 3–4 blini per guest and scale up accordingly.

4. Serve with vodka

Chilled vodka being poured into a shot glass // Photo by Aaron Job

Chilled vodka being poured into a shot glass // Photo by Aaron Job

Optional, but highly recommended. Chill it, and serve it in little glasses your guests can pluck from a vessel packed with ice.

Our recommendations:

  • Far North Spirits Syva (full-bodied with creamy butterscotch and vanilla notes)
  • Flying Dutchman Spirits Nas-Drov-Ya (viscous and direct, for the potato vodka fans)
  • Vikre Distillery Lake Superior Vodka (lithe and crisp with a clean finish)
Blini being spread with sour cream and topped with roe // Photo by Aaron Job

Blini being spread with sour cream and topped with roe // Photo by Aaron Job