Shad is an American saltwater fish, a type of herring that spawns in fresh water at the start of spring. The American shad, a boney fish that is typically three to five pounds each, is prized not for its flesh but for its eggs, a delicacy known as shad roe.
The arrival of shad roe at our fish mongers is a sign that daffodils and longer days are on their way. When displayed in any fish store, shad roe stands out among the white and pale pink fish for its ruby red color and rather ugly sac that contains the fish's eggs. With a raw appearance that's more like liver than fish, shad roe is a nostalgic and adored delicacy with fans who will get on a wait list at some fish stores so that they will not get left out when the limited supplies arrive.
If you're unfamiliar with shad roe, a few things you should know. First, while it's not high in calories, it is high in cholesterol: about 500 milligrams per 3 ounces, similar to that in calves or beef liver. Because shad roe is often cooked in butter and/or bacon fat, the cholesterol per person can be even higher. Second, it's higher in calories than most fish products because it is the roe of the fish and thus, has more fat. One cup of shad roe, about equal to 1 average portion, has about 375 calories. That's before any fat added in the cooking.
Before you cook shad roe, it is a bright red color. After it's cooked it turns a gray-brown, looking similar to liver after it's cooked. When raw it is soft and loose, with the eggs contained in a fragile membrane. When cooked it becomes more firm and has a slightly grainy interior.
The taste? Delicate, and not at all like caviar despite it being all fish eggs. The taste is so subtle that it easily takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it with, especially if you've added onions or bacon.
First gently rinse and dry the pieces, taking care to not pierce the sacs. With a pair of scissors, gently separate the two lobes by cutting along the membrane. Cut out any blood clots.
It can be hard to find recipes for cooking shad roe, probably because it is a distinctively regional dish . One popular way to cook shad roe is with bacon, dredging the shad roe sac first in flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper and then sautéing it in a combination of melted butter and bacon fat, about two minutes a side. Serve with a squeeze of lemon and a strip of crisp bacon alongside. Some also like to serve the pan fried shad roe with a side of well cooked onions.
Another cooking method is to gently poach the whole shad roe in simmering water to which you've added some salt and vinegar. After 20 minutes, transfer to cold water for 5 minutes, then drain. Finish by dusting the shad roe in seasoned flour and fry until golden brown.
A warning: when you cook this intact sac of eggs in hot fat, it is very likely to spurt open. When I recently cooked some it repeatedly exploded, leaving droplets of roe on the walls and ceiling of my kitchen. An easy protection against this is to put a spatter shield on top of your sauté pan. Or you can cook it using this method sent to us by a City Cook reader:
"Butter a piece of wax paper large enough to envelope the amount you would like to cook, salt and pepper the buttered paper, place the roe on the buttered side, pull the sides up and do a small fold over twice to three times encasing the roe. Then twist the ends leaving them sticking out, not folded under. Place in a frying pan over medium to low heat and cook for about 4 to 7 minutes per side depending on size. It will be firm and grey, but not brick hard. No splatter, and pops will be contained and it's easier clean up. This is the Baltimore method."
Thank you, Suzanne.
When fully cooked, the shad roe will be firm, gray-brown throughout, and often with a slightly golden surface if you've sautéed it. Its interior texture will be creamy and smooth. The cooked roe is often served in 1/2-inch bias-cut slices.
If you pierce the sacs and remove the eggs to perhaps add to scrambled eggs (a nice thing to do), you may discover that if the eggs are directly exposed to heat, they can become tough and gritty. Thus the preference to cook the sacs intact.
A few years ago The New York Times did a piece about shad roe that included two recipes. We've included a link below.