Published November 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.
Does brand make a difference when it comes to the world's most expensive spice?
Sometimes known as “red gold,” saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. It’s made from the dried stigmas of Crocus sativus flowers; the stigmas are so delicate they must be harvested by hand in a painstaking process. (It takes about 200 hours to pick enough stigmas to produce just 1 pound of saffron, which typically sells for thousands of dollars.)
Luckily, a little saffron goes a long way, adding a distinct reddish-gold color, notes of honey and grass, and a slight hint of bitterness to dishes like bouillabaisse, paella, and risotto. You can find it as powder or threads, but we’ve found threads are more common. The major producers are Iran and Spain; the saffron you find in the supermarket is usually Spanish. Look for bottles that contain dark red threads—saffron is graded, and the richly hued, high-grade threads from the top of the stigma yield more flavor than the lighter, lesser-grade threads from the base.
With double-digit prices for amounts as tiny as one 100th of an ounce, we wondered how much brand matters. To find out, we chose four brands of high-grade red Spanish saffron—two national supermarket brands (all we could find) and two mail-order options. To our surprise, when we tasted the saffron in garlicky mayonnaise, we couldn’t distinguish one brand from another. Only when we sampled the spice in plain chicken broth, without competing flavors, did the floral, grassy taste of our winner, stand out. Despite being sold in the supermarket, this brand was the most expensive in the lineup.
Our conclusion: Unless saffron is the main flavoring in your recipe, you’ll likely be fine with any brand of dark red threads.