How to Choose the Best Saffron

Matthew All Recipes, Culinary Tips & Techniques, Saffron Recipes, Spice Recipes 2 Comments

Saffron Threads vs. Saffron Powder
Saffron threads are easy to count out, easier to judge for quality at a glance, and can look very pretty in the finished dish, so most pro chefs prefer them.

Saffron powder, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be pre-steeped and takes up less space, making it popular with some home chefs. 


Where Should Your Saffron Come From?
The most highly regarded saffron in the world is Persian (usually from Iran (currently embargoed due to sanctions) or Afghanistan) and Spanish.  Which one you should buy is largely a matter of personal preference, assuming you’re deciding between saffron of equal quality.


How to Judge Saffron Quality:

#1 Rule of Choosing Saffron: The Redder the Saffron, the Better the Quality

When most people think of what saffron looks like, they visualize a tiny glass or plastic container, with a few red & yellow threads in it.  The funny thing is, that isn’t actually what pure saffron looks like. 

Those yellow bits are called “styles”…and while they come from the same crocus flower…they aren’t saffron at all.  The part of saffron you want is the dark orange/red stigma.

Because of saffron’s extremely high value per gram, and the added effort needed to remove it, many (if not most) saffron producers do not remove the long yellow style that trails below the red stigma.  The style does not add any culinary value to the saffron, but can inflate its weight by as much as 50%. 

 old saffron-lg

Pretty Good Saffron

So as a rule, what you want to look for is saffron that is as red as possible.  In fact, saffron brokers, hardcore fanatics & chefs who cook with it a lot insist on hard “color potency” numbers (from a spectrophotometer, no less), to judge how good the saffron they’re being offered is. 

As a home chef, do you really need to memorize quantified color ranges?  No.  Just look for the yellow, and avoid buying if there’s a lot.  While it is almost certain that even the best saffron will include at least a few yellow styles, you don’t want to see very many.  We do provide color potency numbers on our new Persian saffron and Spanish saffron’s product pages for people “in the know” (and they are very high)…but just look at the below photo.  See the difference from the photo above?

new saffron LG

Great Saffron

This Persian saffron is “short-sargol” grade – none of the style is included (which is why it is so red).  We’ve noticed that even the best saffron can include one or two threads with the style on in the package (and have heard that they’re intentionally included as “proof” that the saffron hasn’t been dyed by unscrupulous producers).

That darker color really pays off when it comes time to cook with your saffron.  Higher grade saffron is more potent, so you don’t have to use as much of it in your dishes.

Note: If you’re buying Spanish saffron threads, their equivalent grade is “Superior/Selected.”


How to Choose Saffron Powder:
Though as a rule we prefer whole spices to pre-ground because you often get better flavor, there are some good saffron powders on the market.  Unfortunately it’s harder to tell the quality of powdered saffron at a glance because the yellow styles are ground in.  To tell without trying it out you either need to see the saffron threads it’s made from or hard color potency numbers. 

We also sell Persian saffron powder that is made from our sargol-grade saffron threads.  It tests at the same (high) level of potency as the original threads.

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