For centuries, saffron has represented one of the most elite gustatory experiences in the world of flavor.
However, because of its status and price, saffron has become one of the most adulterated ingredients in the world. Subterfuge in the saffron trade is age-old (and, unfortunately, successful), because the stakes are big enough to motivate unscrupulous sellers. Worse, the information available to consumers is quite confusing. But, as research chefs and consumers seek authenticity of flavor, standards and means for detecting adulteration are becoming more exacting.
It takes approximately 13,125 stigmas (threads) from the Crocus sativus-l flower to equal 1oz dried saffron. A full acre of flowers will supply only 10lb of finished saffron. By any definition, true saffron is a rare and premium ingredient.
Saffron is measured against several grading methods, many of which are not globally recognized. When chefs make a careful purchase of saffron, they often inquire if the saffron is Spanish, preferably from Mancha, since that is believed to be the highest quality in the world. The reality is that Iran produces 96% of the world’s saffron (220 tons), followed by India, which produces 1.3% (3 tons). Spain is far behind at 0.2% (0.5 tons) of the world’s total supply. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the Spanish quality surpasses what is produced in Iran and elsewhere. So, why is it that high-quality saffron often is attributed to a Spanish origin and referred to as “Mancha Quality?”
The lines are blurred when Iranian saffron is purchased and distributed to a great extent from business people in Spain, where the term Mancha is used almost exclusively for marketing purposes. In fact, the Spanish government no longer recognizes the Spanish grading terms Coupe, Mancha, Rio, etc., as legitimate quality indicators. (The reasons why Spanish saffron is a better marketing vehicle than Iranian saffron is a discussion for politicians and marketers.)
Today, the only standard for grading saffron that is global and scientific is ISO (3632). This standard has been retooled over time and now identifies three grades, based on coloring strength: categories 1, 2 and 3, respectively. But, much of what is sold in the marketplace does not qualify for any of these grades, because not all saffron is created equal. The best quality stigmas from this perennial flower are harvested when they are between three to five years old.
If it has been certified by an independent lab, a processor might not actually be incorporating pure saffron into that Risotto Milanese. Adulteration has a long and persistent history in the saffron business. To stretch its value, it is notoriously cut with other additives, such as Chinese gardenia, amaranth flowers, carmine, turmeric, paprika and azorubine (a synthetic red food dye). Dyed silk strands, corn husks and horsehair also have been added to mimic the saffron threads and can be surprisingly hard to detect.
When testing saffron for purchase, put a small pinch in a glass of warm water. If the water turns colors right away -- that’s bad news. That costly purchase likely has colorant added. It typically takes 10 minutes for the full effects of natural saffron to color the water to capacity. In an adulterated product, a processor also might see individual strands swell up and float; these are not saffron stigmas and don’t belong in bouillabaisse!
A saffron importer needs to continuously and meticulously inspect its saffron sources and needs to make a discerning judgment call as to which grade bridges the gap between quality and value for its target customers. As consumers become more knowledgeable, the criteria evolve and ultimately, it seems, the quality of their saffron creations become truer and more delicious.
Aside from the traditional culinary uses of saffron, such as paella or bouillabaisse, saffron can be used to make visually stunning baked goods, both sweet and savory. It is used in the production of candy, such as sugar stir sticks for tea, and it also is used in signature spice blends for snacks, like cashews. Although saffron is expensive (without question), just a bit makes a profound impact and can create a desirable twist on many familiar foods.