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What is wrong with my saffron?

slowfoodgrrl Mar 15, 2008 11:00 AM

Last night I made risotto with saffron. Here is the recipe:


The saffron I used was a gift from a friend who recently returned from an extended trip to Tanzania. The bag was seemingly vacuum packed. There is about 1/4 cup of saffron in there, so I was thrilled to receive this gift given saffron's price in the U.S.

Problem: I couldn't really taste the saffron in the risotto (it was steeped in stock first) and thought it was strange that it didn't really smell fragrant or even really very good at all when I spooned it out of the bag. It actually smelled -- dare I say? -- a little musty and strange. But I used it anyway.

What gives? Is saffron just extremely mild? (I have minimal experience cooking with it.) Or is this a bad bag? How can you tell if saffron is fresh or recipe-worthy?

  1. p
    pengcast Mar 16, 2008 10:15 AM

    A friend of mine who used to work as a baker told me once that there are at least two grades of saffron and bakers tend to use the lesser grade because they really only want the yellow colour for things like Easter breads.

    1. jayt90 Mar 15, 2008 11:58 PM

      Real saffron comes from the stamens (curly red threads) of fall crocus, and the stigma (female part) has to be removed. It is very labor intensive, and only comes from a few Mediterranean or mid-eastern countries. Safflower is a fake substitute, good only for color.

      1. n
        Nyleve Mar 15, 2008 03:04 PM

        I've been given that kind of saffron as a gift also - mine was from Israel. And I've since seen it in the spice markets of Istanbul. It's just not good saffron - I don't know what kind of plant it comes from or how it's grown but it's absolutely 100% worthless for cooking. You're right - it's very impressive to get a bag full of the stuff but it has no flavour or aroma and is not useful for anything at all. Period. Sorry for the bad news - I'm sure your friend meant well. I got mine from a well-meaning friend also.

        Good saffron - or, at the very least, pretty good saffron - will be quite dark red and is invariably sold in smaller containers. The little plastic boxes are typical. It is never available super cheap. You can occasionally find it for a good price (I've bought it in Turkey and Spain more reasonably than here) but it's not cheap. And it's rarely sold in bulk, so a plastic baggie is not likely.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Nyleve
          slowfoodgrrl Mar 15, 2008 03:06 PM

          That's what I thought. Thanks for confirming my suspicions that this kind of bulk saffron gift was too good to be true. The risotto was good... just no saffron flavor. Three cheers for butter and cheese. :)

        2. g
          gordeaux Mar 15, 2008 12:03 PM

          Does the bag of saffron tell you where it's from? I bought some cheap mexican saffron just to try it, and it was pretty much a waste of $. No flavor at all.

          1 Reply
          1. re: gordeaux
            paulj Mar 15, 2008 12:57 PM

            The Mexican saffron (azafran) is actually safflower petals. It can be used to give a similar yellow color, but probably shouldn't be substituted (outside of Mexican cooking) where you want real saffron flavor (not that I've ever used enough true saffron to say much about the flavor).

          2. Paul Weller Mar 15, 2008 11:56 AM

            That recipe calls for a lot of saffron. If you used enough good saffron that rissotto would taste sort of "mediciney".

            1. Dmnkly Mar 15, 2008 11:09 AM

              Saffron is NOT mild. A tiny pinch will season a bit pot of whatever you're making with a very distinct flavor. This recipes calls for a whole teaspoon, and I think even that's a little heavy (depending on your saffron, of course).

              Sadly, I suspect this may be an example of getting what you pay for :-)

              1. d
                don515 Mar 15, 2008 11:09 AM

                Must be old and or poor quality. Best saffron is all red threads. Anywho try
                Vanilla Saffron Imports. www.saffron.com
                great quailty and price. They even put on the package to use 1/3 less than whatever the recipe calls for due to the quality.


                1. b
                  bw2082 Mar 15, 2008 11:09 AM

                  maybe it's stale and old or it's not really saffron.

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