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The Italian Seasoning That’s Not for the Faint of Heart

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
July 23, 2014

Bottarga has been nicknamed “poor man’s caviar,” in part because it’s a traditional ingredient used by Sardinian fishermen. We don’t know any “poor” man who can spend $60 on 80 grams of anything, but can he take us to dinner

Yes, this salted, cured fish roe that hails from the Mediterranean is expensive, but a little goes a long way. This is what bottarga-loving chef after bottarga-loving chef will tell you.

Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina calls grey mullet bottarga “the country ham of the fish world” and sprinkles it over baked oysters. Sicilian-born Celestino Drago of Valentino in Los Angeles thinly slices tuna bottarga, which is more moist and has a stronger flavor than the stuff made from grey mullet, and serves it on toast. Mario Batali is down with both kinds, and simply shaves whichever he has on hand over spaghetti

“When I lived in Italy, the chef I worked for told me to use bottarga for green vegetables,” said Adam Leonti, chef de cuisine at Vetri in Philadelphia. “Broccoli and bottarga was a classic, but anything green, really.”

Some bottarga is better than others, said Leonti, and unfortunately the better stuff will cost you: Bottarga di Muggine from Buon Italiana is his favorite, and it goes for a cool $96 for a quarter of a pound. What you’re paying for is freshness, which may sound like an oxymoron, given that this is a dried, salted product, but hear Leonti out:

“Certain producers will … freeze fish right before it [goes] bad, while others will freeze it the moment it’s caught.” The latter approach ensures fresher, better-tasting frozen fish, says Leonti, and the same rule applies to bottarga. “Some people catch a 250-pound tuna and try to sell the whole fish, including the roe.” If they’ve been unsuccessful, they’ll finally try to save the product by breaking it down and salting the parts, “just when it’s about to turn stinky.” Other producers seek out the best fish, remove the roe immediately, and salt it fresh. That’s the stuff you want to deal with, Leonti says, and you’ll know it because it’s brighter in color, usually with a pinkish tint, and less salty.

We followed Batali’s lead in our video above, but we grated the hardened roe, using it just as a seasoning, instead of mixing in more substantial shavings. An ounce of bottarga could dress pasta for six. This is the way to go if you’re trying it for the first time or if you’re sensitive to briny, funky flavors. Because, we agree, a little goes a long way, but a little funk is always good.