Genuine, high quality saffron should be dark fiery-red in color, crunchy and dry. Real saffron should color water bright yellow. The saffron thread should keep its red color even after the water test.
What to keep in mind when looking for a supplier, and to get quality saffron. First of all don’t get emotional, look at the facts and check quality by asking the right questions.
Cheap Saffron Price is Suspicious
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. This makes it the object of fraud. You can be deceived into buying low quality, or fake saffron. Psychologically, people who search for saffron with a lower price tag, trick themselves into thinking they have earned better pricing when they see it. In reality the input activities to manufacture saffron are the same. It is almost impossible for someone to come up with considerably lower prices to offer qualitative saffron. It is possible only if some new technology has been discovered to cultivate and process saffron. However, reasonably lower prices do make sense. It also depends whether you are looking at the producer, wholesale, or retail price. Generally speaking, lower saffron prices can be a result of more efficient work, lean organisation, economics of scale, or lower margins of the saffron supplier. So it is possible. However big price drops are suspicious. In these cases you have to be aware of fake saffron, its quality, and deception.
Fake Saffron in India
One of the worst things that can happen is you buy fake saffron, or get deceived. In fake saffron other materials are mixed to the saffron’s content. So called saffron can be artificially colored and manipulated. The quality is non-existent. It might sound extreme, but it happens.
According to a certain study, half of saffron in India is adulterated, and none of the samples that were taken met color and aroma top quality standards. According to Union foods processing industries ministry, none of the saffron samples met grade I and II saffron’s qualities. Only 56 percent was genuine saffron, but qualified as grade III and IV. The grade is determined by content of safranal and crocin. These contribute to the color and aroma of negin, pushal and sargol. According to the study, the other 44 percent were adulterated with parts of other plants than saffron. Such as cup grass, mulberry, wheat and pistachio. This is a clear evidence of intentional adulteration. It should be noted the study was conducted in India. However, it does demonstrate the dangers of getting cheated when dealing with saffron.
The concerns of the saffron’s adulteration go back over many years. In 1918 chemists in US pointed out that saffron fibres may be soaked in honey, various oils, or glycerine to make saffron weight more.
Scientists in Czech Republic have discovered that over half of saffron claimed to be “Spanish Saffron” is not grown nor processed in Spain. Spanish saffron is considered superior to other saffrons from other worlds regions.
How Top Quality Saffron is Manufactured
Realistically speaking, if you are not in India, most likely you will be dealing with the genuine saffron, but the quality may lack and fluctuate. To guarantee high quality saffron, the production process must have the following.
Saffron is a stigma of the flower, called Crocus Sativus. The flower thrives in Continental climate present in Mediterranean region. Crocus Sativus likes cold and wet winters. Dry and hot summers. The soil should be well drained and sandy.
The quality of the genuine saffron depends very much on the picking process, as well as on drying and storing of the thread. The main types of Iranian saffron are negin, pushal, and sargol. Harvest takes place from September to November when the flower is opening. It is important to harvest in the morning, as direct sunlight might hurt the stigma’s chemical structure. It is important that the stigma does not get damaged in the process. The picking is pure handwork.
After manually separating the stigmas, saffron is dried in a warm and dry place. During the process the the threads lose 80% of their weight. It is important the stigmas do not get roasted. If the moisture level is too high it adds to the weight, and hurts the quality. Fater and controlled drying process results in less air pollution and mold.
When the saffron’s threads are dried, they should be stored in the dark environment. Away from the natural and artificial light. The temperature should be rather chilly than warm. High temperature can kill the aroma. Too cold, like inside refrigerator, is not good either. Because when saffron is brought out from the cold it will absorb moisture, and it spoils its quality. Saffron should be kept in the airtight containers, the less air circulation the better.
How to Check Saffron's Quality
Generally speaking world markets accept three types of saffron quality: negin, pushal, and sargol. Every saffron type is also graded according to four different categories. This means saffrons are tested for certain levels of crocin, safranal and picrocrocin.
As described earlier, in the extreme cases you need to be aware of the fake saffron. You need to make sure you are getting the quality you have been promised. Saffron should comply with, and be tested according to ISO 3632 standard. ISO tests 3632 11:2010 and 3632 10:2011 describe the methodology and criteria to attest whether the saffron is qualitative. These test are used for saffron threads and powder. If you are buying from the producer, they should provide you with Certificate of Origin, Certificate of Analysis, Safforn’s Chemical Analysis Test, and HACCP.
In order to officially and clearly find out, laboratory tests give the most authentic answer to you. There are alternative ways to check the quality by handy and easier methodologies as well. It should be pointed out, it is more difficult to test the powder saffron without the laboratory equipment.
Simple Way to Test Saffron's Quality
Saffron smells strong and fresh. Mix of floral, honey and hay scent. Fake saffron does not have a strong smell.
Real saffron should taste sweet and bitter. There are no alternatives for the taste of saffron. When saffron tastes only sweet it is fake.
When saffron thread is put in the water, it should give away its color slowly. When strong color appears fast, you are dealing with adulterated saffron. Genuine saffron thread should not change its color in water, also the thread’s structure should remain strong.