Thursday, 28 March 2013

Saffron - Real vs Fake

I love getting presents (who doesn't?). 
One present I received recently was a bag of goodies from my friend Lucy who visited Marrakech.  Amongst the edible rose buds and preserved lemons that she gave me, was a bag of saffron.

Moroccan Rosebuds & Preserved Lemons. 
Photo courtesy of L Ruffieux

For me, saffron has always been saffron – sold in compact little packs for a high price.  But Lucy came back enthused and educated following a tutorial from a Moroccan souk trader who explained why saffron is so expensive and how to tell the real McCoy from the counterfeits.  Here are Lucy’s findings…..

Spices from the Souks of Marrakech.
Photo courtesy of L Ruffieux

The Labour of Producing Saffron
Saffron is by far the most expensive spice to purchase, more expensive than truffles and caviar and its price is reflective of the labour that goes into producing it.
Saffron is harvested by hand from the saffron crocus flower.  It takes 150 flowers to produce a single gram of dried saffron with each crocus bearing only three stigmas.
The stigmas must be picked on the same day the bud breaks and the flower starts to bloom.  Then they are dried in a warm oven or out in the sun before being sold.
This intense process is the reason why prices are so high for such small quantities.

Real & Fake Saffron
It can be assumed if you are buying saffron from a supermarket or an established store then it is actual saffron and your purchase is bona fide.  Unfortunately as saffron can be so easy to emulate and the command price for it is high, fake saffron can be found in abundance. 
The main sign is if it’s cheap, it’s probably fake.  Fake saffron may be sold using mixtures made up of marigold flowers or old saffron stems to bulk out the pack, thus qualifying its cheap selling price.
Here are some other tell-tale signs of how to spot the real thing versus the imposters!

*  Saffron has a distinct floral, spicy aroma.
*  Real saffron should be long, fine, separate threads.   The threads should have a thin    
    yellow tendril on one end and a red trumpet-like flute on the other.
*  Another key indicator is that the majority of the thread should be a vivid, bright    
    reddish colour and when soaked in warm water, the water should turn bright yellow.
A Pinch of Real Saffron
A Thread of Real Saffron -
Note the Red Trumpet-like top end and the Yellow Tendril at the bottom end.

*  Threads tend to be clumped together and are slightly torn. 
Another give away is that the yellow tendril may not be connected to the main red 
    thread of saffron.

Uses for Saffron:
Although used heavily in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking, it can be used to flavour and colour so many dishes such as spaghetti, rice and barley.   
It can also be used in desserts including ice cream, as it bears a resemblance to vanilla and lends itself well to sweet foods.

Cooking With Saffron
In view of real saffron being expensive, it is important to try and maximise each strand and make the most of this ingredient.  Here are some suggestions:
*  Add strands quite early on into the cooking process so that it can blend and infuse with
    the other ingredients.
*  Soak a few strands in about 10-15ml of warm water for about quarter of an hour to
    intensify, and then add to your dish as you would with a stock.

If the souks of Marrakesh aren’t on your agenda right now, then on a more local level, saffron can be purchased at most leading supermarkets within the herbs & spices section and is definitely worth the investment, even if only used sparingly. 
So now you know the real saffron from the fake, treat your spice rack to a pot of saffron to use next time you want to add the golden touch to meal times.





  1. Nice post, Anna. I love Saffron and whack it into any old thing.

    Similar to you, I had a friend came back from Morocco, and, knowing my disposition, brought me back a big handful of the stuff. Unlike your friend however, he brought back some wood shavings smelling like sandalwood...

    1. Hi Adam!

      Glad you like the post! It's great when someone can bring some back as it's so expensive in shops here!

      Ha, ha - hope you can put the sandalwood to good use!! :)

      Best wishes - Anna

  2. Compulsory in paellas! Coming from Spain, I saw saffron quality quite poor in supermarkets. Good to know how to spot the fake one! :)

    1. Thanks Alvaro! Glad you enjoyed the article, hope it proves useful for you and you're right, it's perfect for veggie paellas! Best wishes - Anna

  3. Thanks for all the information on Saffron. I found it very educational I usually don't cook with saffron because it's so expensive and it's been a bit of a mystery how to use it properly

  4. Glad you found it of interest Elizabeth! I hope the blog post will give you some ideas for using saffron. Happy cooking! Best wishes - Anna