When I went to my first saffron harvest in 1985, I didn't realize what a big help it was going to be for me to actually see the saffron plant up close and to examine all its parts. It turns out that knowing what the saffron plant's make-up is goes a long way toward helping one sort through all the misinformation which exists about how to know if you are buying good saffron.
You will read elsewhere about other ways that saffron threads are
evaluated for quality. I say saffron threads because the vast
majority of people writing about saffron dismiss saffron powder
altogether. Most common is the warning that your threads should be
mostly or all red, the natural color of saffron stigmas both in the
field and after they have been dried. You are warned against buying
red threads mixed with yellow substances, usually also described as
threads. This has to do with the make-up of the saffron crocus
The stigmas or female reproductive organ of the plant is what becomes the commercial substance called saffron. The stigmas grow out of a style, which runs down the middle of the flowers of the crocus. These styles are white but can appear pale yellow when dried. In addition, each flower has the male part or stamens which are in fact about the same color as the dye present inside the red stigmas but cannot be seen by the naked eye until it is "released" through contact with heat, alcohol or acidity. The yellow stamens do not have any of saffron's aroma or flavor. They are sometimes sold for their yellow dye.
Since saffron is harvested by hand and very quickly because the plants stop blooming within three to four weeks, it is not uncommon for harvesters to mix parts of the styles and stamens in with the saffron stigmas. It is the overall percentage of these materials, which have no aromatic or flavoring value, which you are being warned about. Since the coloring strength of the style and stamens is negligible, I don't worry too much about what percentage of the saffron threads or powder I purchase is made up of non-saffron materials. If the lab report accompanying my saffron indicates a coloring strength higher than 200, I know I am buying the best saffron being imported into the U.S.
The Greek saffron I have been using for two years has a coloring strength of around 250, varying just a few points with each new harvest but always way above the minimum International Standard. This would simply not be possible if too much extraneous material was being mixed in with the saffron stigmas. I would rather trust a lab report than my own ability to guess what percentage of the saffron I am considering buying is actually saffron.
My best advice is to be concerned about saffron's coloring
strength rather than country of origin or the company supplying it.
Every saffron cultivating region in the world produces excellent
saffron. Whether or not that excellent saffron gets exported is an
entirely different matter. Any reputable saffron purveyor ought to
be able to provide you with this information if they are serious
about selling top quality product. Everything else is just their
word against your experience which can prove to be an expensive
proposition when you consider the price gauging that goes on with
Taste is so individual. Three people sampling saffron items at one of my demonstrations can easily have three different opinions about a single item. If you ask someone to describe the taste of saffron you will likely get a variety of answers like "it tastes like the sea" or that it is "slightly bitter". Most of the time people say they cannot put saffron's flavor in words. That isn't surprising when you consider the fact that there is not one single ingredient known to us which can be substituted for saffron. Not one. The cookbooks that advise you to substitute turmeric for saffron are really telling you to create a completely different dish. Turmeric has its own wonderful properties- they just happen to be very different from saffron's.
I will never forget the owner/chef of a Spanish restaurant using
too heavy a hand with thyme in my saffron scalloped potato recipe,
completely killing the saffron flavor. Thank goodness the other
recipes he prepared from my book, which I was launching in his
restaurant, were successful. That experience made me realize how
easy it is to continue the myth that saffron is expendable in a
dish. The scalloped potatoes were still delicious; they just weren't
saffron potatoes. Unless the consumer has the opportunity to really
taste a saffron dish prepared correctly, they cannot know what they
are missing. This goes back to saffron being unique. Its flavor can
never be duplicated.
Working with Saffron
As a satisfied user of powdered saffron, I am constantly amazed at the number of references I come across warning people never to buy or use it. What are these writers talking about? I find the Greek powder much easier to measure and disseminate in my recipes and my overall prep time is shorter because unlike saffron threads, saffron powder can be added directly. In thread form, saffron needs a little "help" in the form of heat, an acidic ingredient or alcohol to fully release its aroma, flavor and color. When saffron threads are powdered its chemicals, which correspond to aroma, flavor and color, are released and the powder may be added directly to recipes without further extraction. Stored properly after it has been powdered, saffron maintains these characteristics for years. It is not true that saffron powder is inferior to saffron threads or that saffron powder can more easily be adulterated. Saffron farmers in several countries have entertained me with descriptions of all the ways that saffron threads can be adulterated and these have been documented through the centuries. Saffron powder can be and is adulterated but I don't think any more frequently than the threads. Be concerned about inferior, adulterated saffron but be equally concerned about this with both forms of the spice. I can tell you that I have saved hours of time of the years and cut down my frustration level immensely in working with saffron by using powder instead of threads. The first time you try to use a whisk with the threads or try to get an even spread of threads when cooking grains or making a sauce, you will see what I mean. There is no reason for me to be advocating saffron powder over threads except sheer convenience. I am not a vendor of saffron in either form. I have learned to use it in very simple ways to liven up lowfat, low salt dishes.
I believe that the saffron recipes I have developed which have proven to be popular with the widest audiences (mostly non-vegetarian folks who nonetheless love potatoes, bread, vegetables, etc.) are the ones which really feature saffron's subtle flavor. It takes a light hand with other flavors in the same dish to feature saffron because even though the flavor is distinct, other herbs and spices, even the ones that are very complementary with it, can easily mask its subtlety.
After testing hundreds of recipes over the past decade, I have not altered my original opinions about the usefulness of saffron in baking and cooking. What has changed is my own diet, the quality of the saffron I use, and perhaps most important, my strong preference for using saffron powder rather than threads. I am now a vegetarian (moving toward a vegan diet but not there yet), must watch my salt intake due to borderline hypertension, and have less time than ever for baking and cooking in my life. This means I look for the most efficient ways to operate in the kitchen, have altered most of the recipes from my first book to make them vegetarian, lowfat and low salt, adapt many more non-traditional recipes for saffron, bake with saffron allot more and almost never use saffron threads.
It is my intention, with my second
book, to tailor the majority of my recipes to this group and those
who want to maintain a low- fat, low-sodium diet. Saffron's
versatility makes it a perfect flavor for adding interest to low-fat
baking and cooking. It blends equally well with vegetable broths,
low-fat dairy products, dairy substitutes such as tofu, many
vegetables and fruits and lots of dried beans and whole grains. Even
before I began changing my own diet, I couldn't help but notice how
many of the published saffron recipes around the world were high in
fat, sodium and sugar. Many were absolutely delicious, no question
about it. But something in the back of my mind keep nagging at me.
Why couldn't saffron recipes be delicious and healthier? I finally
realized they could but those of us rediscovering saffron would have
to create them.
Look for this book : “Wild About Saffron: A Contemporary Guide to an Ancient Spice.” by Ellen Szita.
As of Dec 2001 I am not sure if Ellen has done the second book.
Another good book is : “Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice” by Pat Willard.
The Icons below will guide you to the other Saffron Pages : Pages 5 - 10 are Recipe Pages