What is Saffron?
Saffron is a spice that is derived from the Crocus Sativus L. flower, also known as the "saffron crocus." What makes this spice so special and incredibly valuable is the fact that each saffron crocus only produces three small threads. Each one of these threads must be handpicked due to its delicate nature. It takes roughly 75,000 flowers to produce just a single pound of Saffron.
Saffron is a healing spice which is used in top restaurants around the world, by experimental cooks, and also those who enjoy it saffron for its medicinal health benefits.
Where does Saffron come from?
The Saffron crocus thrives in dry climate with full exposure to the sun. The Saffron crocus also requires well dried soil. These ideal conditions are one of the few reasons Iran continues to be the worlds largest producer of Saffron. Iranian saffron accounts for roughly 94% of the worlds total Saffron production. Spanish saffron and Afghan Saffron are the two contending producers, however, they only account for a combined 4%. So one thing to keep in mind when shopping for saffron is the Origin of the Saffron, it's best to buy Saffron directly from the source to minimize your risk of adulteration. For this reason, we highly recommend understanding the different types of Iranian Saffron to fully understand the variety of saffron available in the marketplace.
Types of Iranian Saffron?
Iran is the largest producer of Saffron, with that in mind, its cautious to be aware of this fact when buying saffron online from various distributors. It's common place to think that Spain is the largest distributor or best quality saffron, for this reason, many sellers will purchase Iranian Saffron and rebrand or relabel it as Spanish to make a profit.
Here are the types of Iranian Saffron
- SARGOL: In farsi, this is known as "top of the flower", it is the very tip trim of the Saffron thread. Sargol is all-red in color, however, the stigma is shorter and often contains some crumbs.
- SUPER NEGIN: The most expensive type of Saffron is Super Negin. The saffron threads are longer, and trimmed perfectly to eliminate any yellow style. Super Negin is all-red in color and contains little to no crumbs.
- NEGIN: Similar to the Super Negin saffron, negin also has long threads. The primary difference is that Negin saffron still contains some yellow style which increases the weight.
- PUSHAL: Pushal is the cheapest type of Iranian Saffron, it contains lots of yellow and orange style. This yellow portion of the saffron stigma contains no culinary or medicinal benefit which is why the cost is lower. Additionally, you're paying for added weight because the yellow and orange portion of the thread contain higher levels of moisture.
- DATESHI: This is also known as "bunch saffron". Although Dateshi Saffron is not commonly sold in retail, it's possible to purchase it from select distributors. Dateshi is the whole saffron stigma that is untrimmed and bundled together. It contains lots of yellow and orange style.
Types of Spanish Saffron?
Spain, although not a major producer of saffron, still produces very good quality Saffron. Spanish saffron only accounts for about 3% of the worlds production.
One thing to keep in mind is that most of the Spanish Saffron sold internationally is actually Iranian Saffron. It would be impossible for Spain to produce and export the amount of Saffron that it does with its current production level. Part of this is due to the much higher labor costs of cultivation in Spain. It's very difficult for Spain to compete with Iranian Saffron when their costs to produce are almost twice as much.
If you're going to purchase Spanish Saffron, we recommend asking your supplier for a Certificate of Origin. If you're looking to buy La Mancha Saffron, we recommend never buying it unless the suppler has a D.O.P (Denomination of Protected Origin). Since this type of Saffron is so expensive, you want to make sure you're getting the real thing and not just Iranian saffron that's been rebranded.
Types of Spanish Saffron
Coupe: Spanish Coupe Saffron is very similar to Iranian Sargol Saffron. It has shorter threads that are all red and uniform in color. It's very potent and of the highest quality that Spain produces.
La Mancha: Spanish La Mancha Saffron, although not the highest quality, is the most expensive type of Saffron. Since it's a protected origin, there is a very small amount of this type of Saffron and the government of Spain highly regulates it. In fact, the government limits how much of La Mancha saffron you can export at once. The cost for La Mancha saffron can be twice as much as Iranian Pushali saffron, which is of the same quality. Again, this is due to higher labor costs in Spain. It's very common for distributors to purchase Iranian Pushali saffron and relabel it as Spanish La Mancha saffron. For this reason, we recommend asking for a D.O.P.
Where to find the Best Quality Saffron?
Ask any Saffron distributor about the quality of their saffron and they will probably respond with something like, "we sell the best quality saffron!"
Well, if you've been shopping around for a reputable saffron supplier then you're probably left wondering which saffron brand is better. Luckily, the quality of Saffron is measurable, you just need to be informed on what makes saffron high quality.
If you're looking for high quality saffron, then you need to familiarize yourself with the chemical compounds that make saffron better in quality. Whether you're buying Iranian Saffron, Spanish Saffron, or Afghan Saffron, these chemical elements are the most important when buying saffron.
Here are the three things to look for:
- Safranal (Aroma): Safranal is associated with the smell of your Saffron. We recommend a reading of 35+. Without high levels of Safranal, you will be able to taste the Saffron but the aroma wont be strong.
- Crocin (Color): Crocin is responsible for the color of the saffron. High quality saffron will have a color reading over 260+.
- Picocrocin (Flavor): Picocrocin is responsible for the flavor the saffron. For high quality saffron, we recommend a Picocrocin level of 90-110.
When buying saffron online, be sure to ask for a copy of the most current Lab Analysis. If the seller can't provide you this, its best to walk away. It's very important that you know what you're buying when dealing with such an expensive spice. Other things to consider when purchasing saffron is the moisture content, ash matter, and percentage of foreign objects. It's important to know that your Saffron is not just high quality, but also pure and free of any harmful elements.
How to test Saffron?
So you just ordered some saffron online, now you're probably wondering if what you got is the real deal. There are many ways to test your Saffron for purity. If your saffron fails any of these tests, unfortunately, you've been duped with fake Saffron.
1. Cold water test: Take a pinch of Saffron and put it in a cup of cold water. Pure saffron will slowly release a golden hue color, whereas fake saffron will bleed a dark red or orange color immediately. If you notice your water turns red, its fake saffron. If you notice the threads turn white or clear, its fake saffron.
2. Taste it: Put a saffron thread on your tongue, saffron should smell sweet but never taste sweet. If it tastes sweet, its fake saffron.
3. Baking Soda: Mix saffron and baking soda in a small cup filled with water. If the water is yellow then you are looking at an example of pure saffron.
Real Saffron: Pure saffron will slowly release a golden hue color. It will take around 20-30 minutes before the water turns orange. The saffron threads should retain its red color for up to 24 hours without turning clear.
What are some signs of Fake Saffron?
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, hence its nickname "Red Gold." Due to lots of misinformation in the marketplace, illegitimate sellers try to capitalize on selling adulterated saffron to make a quick profit.
Some common scams that are common with fake saffron are:
- Adding Moisture: Many sellers will spray or mist the saffron with water to add weight. High quality saffron should be dry and contain a moisture level around 4% to 5%. Adding moisture to the Saffron shortens the shelf life and damages the Saffron.
- Adding Fillers: The most common type of adulteration is mixing corn silk with the saffron. Many illegitimate sellers will add corn silk and spray them with artificial coloring to make it look like real saffron. This increases the weight of the saffron and is a very common scam among distributors.
- Selling Old Crop: Often times, you will purchase saffron that has great color but no flavor or aroma. Many sellers will sell you the previous seasons crop so they can price their product more competitively or to simply just make a higher profit. Since Saffron has a two year shelf life, purchasing saffron from the previous crop season will prove to be ineffective when cooking as it lacks aroma and flavor.
Fake Saffron - The saffron threads will turn clear after putting it in cold water. This is a sign that the Saffron is mixed with Corn Silk.
How to use Saffron?
The best way to use Saffron is to grind it down with a pestile and mortar into a fine powder. Once you have your fine saffron powder, add about 3 tsp of boiling or hot water. Let the Saffron water steep for about 10-15 minutes. The hot water accelerates and releases the chemical compounds in Saffron associated with the flavor and aroma.
From here, you can add the Saffron liquid to your food. Using saffron is very simple and requires very little preparation, for best results check with your recipe for how much to use.
How to Store Saffron?
Saffron is best stored in an airtight container, preferably in glass or aluminum. For long term storage, its best to keep saffron stored in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight. Keeping your saffron out on the counter will make it susceptible to heat and therefore shorten its shelf life.
Another common mistake is keeping Saffron stored in the refrigerator. Although this is okay for small amounts of Saffron, we don't recommend storing your Saffron in the fridge because condensation will shorten the shelf life. Each time you open your bottle of saffron you're allowing for air and moisture to come inside, this adds moisture to your saffron and actually damages it.
Keep your saffron stored in a dark, dry, and cool place such as a cabinet. For large volumes of saffron, we recommend wrapping it with a sheet of aluminum foil for extra protection.