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How to Shop for Saffron

By Cook's Illustrated Published July 2005

What are the differences in flavor and quality among saffron varieties? And should I buy saffron threads or powdered saffron?

Saffron Varieties

Though the bulk of commercially produced saffron comes from Spain and Iran, it is also harvested on a small scale in India, Greece, France, and, closer to home, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. To see if origin or price would make a difference in our cooking, we prepared three batches of risotto alla Milanese and flavored one with Spanish saffron, one with American, and one with Indian, which cost twice as much as the other two.

Surprisingly, tasters liked the risotto made with the expensive Indian saffron least, describing the flavor as "tinny" and "bland." The risotto made with Spanish saffron was better liked, but the overwhelming favorite was that made with the American saffron.

Our conclusion: Just because saffron has an expensive pedigree doesn't mean it will taste good. Shop carefully, and if you come across domestic saffron, buy some. It can be an excellent—and relatively inexpensive—alternative.

Saffron Threads

Saffron is available in two forms—threads and powder. Conventional wisdom says that deep, dark red threads are better than yellow or orange threads. We held a small tasting of broths infused with different saffron samples, and the threads with considerable spots of yellow and orange did in fact yield the weakest-colored and flattest-tasting broths. The reddest threads yielded intensely flavorful, heady, perfumed broths—so much so that less ardent saffron fans would have been happier with a little less saffron.

Powdered Saffron

Conventional wisdom also cautions against the use of powdered saffron. Some sources say that inferior threads are used to produce the powder and that coloring agents may be added. While this may be true, we found powdered saffron purchased from a reputable source to be just as flavorful and fragrant as even the highest-quality threads. What's more, powdered saffron offers a few advantages over threads. First, a smaller amount can be used (about one-third to one-half the volume measurement of threads); second, the powder is easier to measure and does not need to be crumbled before use; finally, it releases its flavor much more rapidly (a boon for quick recipes such as the Saffron Aïoli but not so important for simmered dishes such as Paella and Bouillabaisse—please see related recipes for all three recipes).

In conclusion, when shopping for saffron, look for dark red threads without any interspersion of yellow or orange threads. Or, to save money, choose a good-quality powdered saffron.