When I needed saffron recently, I pulled out the three different batches from my pantry. Why did I have three when saffron is not a common ingredient? The short answer is that I am too acquisitive. I could not resist stocking up on this exotic spice. I bought two on vacation (in Hungary and Spain) and the third at Trader Joe’s. Before deciding which one to use, I was concerned about figuring out how to identify real saffron and avoid any that was fake or adulterated. But how to test the saffron? Spoiler alert – it turned out that some of my “saffron” was fake.
Real saffron is the stigma of the autumn crocus flower. While the flower is purple, the stigma is red. Each crocus bulb produces only one flower and each flower only produces 3 stigmas. As a result, the spice is difficult to harvest and expensive to purchase.
What can be wrong with what you bought? The item labelled saffron can be entirely fake, or it can be real saffron but adulterated with other substances. Fake saffron can be corn silk threads, safflower (an unrelated thistle), coconut filaments or even dyed horse hair, or shredded paper. The dye used to color fake saffron will come off quickly, a fact that becomes apparent if you do the water test (#4 below). Real saffron can also be adulterated – mixed with fake materials or fillers or even sprayed with water to make it heavier and costlier by weight.
Six tests to identify real/pure saffron
- Smell – Many authorities describe the smell of saffron as sweet. I would say it reminds me of paella – a distinctive smell that is not entirely sweet. Rather, I find it both sweet and husky. It is no surprise that saffron brings paella to mind. That dish include saffron in the rice and the addition of the spice gives paella an unforgettable aroma. For examples of how to use saffron in paella rice, check out this seafood paella or this chicken, mushroom and shrimp paella, both from José Andres. One saffron producer describes the aroma of real saffron as “a blend of earth, tobacco, vanilla, honey, salty sweet.”
- Appearance – Saffron threads are trumpet-shaped. If a thread does not bulge at one end, it’s a fake. If you rub real saffron between your fingers, your skin will turn yellow/orange.
- Taste – While saffron smells sweet, it tastes slightly bitter, not sweet.
- Time for color release in water – Put the threads in a small container of tepid water. Wait at least 15 minutes. Real saffron slowly turns the water yellow. The color change may take up to an hour. The saffron threads themselves retain their red color. If the water changes color immediately or turns red or does not change color, or if the threads lose their color, the substance is not saffron. As you can see, the Hungarian “saffron”did not color the water. That was a sure sign it was not real. Also, after they soak, real saffron threads will remain intact if you rub them between your fingers. Fakes on the other hand, tend to fall apart.
- How it reacts in baking soda – I haven’t tried this, but several authorities suggest mixing saffron and baking soda in a small container, then pouring water over the mixture. If it turns yellow, the substance is real saffron.
- Price – If it is not too expensive, there’s a good chance it is not real saffron. As my mother taught me, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is (too good to be true.) I should have doubted the Hungarian substance from the beginning, just based on this price test.
Tips for buying saffron
- Never buy ground saffron. Although your recipe may call for ground, if you buy it in threads, at least you can figure out if it is real. Once the substance is ground, it is almost impossible to distinguish real from fake or adulterated. Plus ground saffron, even if real, can contain fillers such as dyed rice flour, starch or other spices such as turmeric or paprika.
- Maybe it goes without saying, but it never hurts to remember that you should buy from a reputable source. That source can either be a store you trust or an online seller you have vetted.
Proper storage of saffron
- Store saffron threads in glass in a cool, dark place.
- Do not store saffron in a plastic container or bag.
The outcome of my saffron tests –
The Hungarian saffron I bought (on the right) was either entirely fake or heavily adulterated. And yes, I know the Spanish saffron on the left should not have been left in its original plastic bag. But at least I took my own advice. After researching for this post and learning it should be in glass, I immediately transferred that saffron to a repurposed clean glass bottle.
Here is a close-up of the Hungarian batch that flunked the tests.
From my tests, It seemed that the two Spanish saffron batches, from a vendor in Barcelona and from Trader Joes, seemed to be the real deal. Now to make one of José Andres’ fabulous-looking paella recipes!