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Jul 21, 2011 02:12 AM

Real saffron vs fake saffron

I was reading this article in the New Yorker, and the guy profiled made some startling claims about saffron and how what we end up buying is color-dyed fakes. (Of course, he claims that he's selling the real stuff.)

"claimed that not a single restaurant in Las Vegas was using pure product. Most of the saffron on the market—sold for eighty-five dollars an ounce—was, he claimed, a hash of crocus parts dyed with red food coloring... There’s more cheating going on in saffron than almost any other prod­uct. The fake ones, you put them in water, the water will turn orange-red from dye."

Are these accusations correct, or is he just trying to build his business by unfairly disparaging the wares of his competitors?

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  1. Cookipedia has a nice article on saffron that is grown right here in Tuscany. San Gimignano has been famed for producing and exporting high quality saffron since the 1200's. It was used as a spice, but also as a medicine. Here is the link.

    Real saffron is VERY expensive and you only need a tiny bit when cooking. The root should be placed in a bit of warm water before using.

    Chances are that many restaurants do not use real, high quality saffron :(

    1. I have heard the fake claims, for decades.

      So just buy it from Then you know it is real and that you got the best price.

      1. Not sure why you'd mess with dyes if you wanted to cut or fake it. Yellow saffron aka American saffron aka safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) looks like the real thing (Crocus sativus) but is dirt cheap. Flavour is almost neutral, but it does have similar colouring abilities to the real thing.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Mr F

          "flavour is almost neutral"....<shudder>. Real saffron has a sublime flavor. I'm lucky to have relatives in India who bring me real Kashmiri saffron regularly. I dry roast it in a cast iron pan, then add it to a bit of warm milk before using in biryani or pullao. Also have made saffron caramels, which are food of the angels.

          1. re: pine time

            I know real saffron is sublime. To be clear, I meant safflower is almost neutral in flavour. It adds colour, and that's about it, though I suppose if you used enough you might notice a contribution to flavour.

            I once bought a big bag ridiculously cheap. I don't remember if it was labelled as "saffron" or "American saffron" but either way I thought I was getting an incredible deal on some real albeit low-grade saffron. I soon found out otherwise.

            More experienced cooks can probably tell the difference by sight, but to the uninitiated the appearance is quite deceiving.

            1. re: Mr F

              The most common source in the USA for the safflower type is the Mexican spice rack, usually labeled as 'azafran' (though that name also applies to the true Spanish saffron).
              In Latin American annato (achiote) is also widely used as a yellow food coloring.

              1. re: Mr F

                Okay, got it now! Thanks for clarifying.

            2. re: Mr F

              The "saffron" you find in most foreign markets in half-kilo bags is invariably safflower. We've had friends return from trips abroad with huge bags of what they believed to be saffron but sadly learned otherwise. Don't fall for the "it's cheap because you get it right from the source." It's an especially valuable commodity for growers and they treat it as such.

              1. re: Mr F

                Ah, this thread saved me a post. Thanks for discussion! Here's a pic.

              2. Yesterday I watched a travel program on PBS focusing on food in Morocco. Many of the dishes included both saffron and 'artificial saffron'. No explanation as to what this artificial stuff was, though clearly it was used for color, not flavor.

                "The sauce that forms the basis of a marqa or tajîne varies per region. In Morocco, saffron is traditionally used to color the basic sauce yellow. Nowadays, saffron is nearly always replaced by artificial yellow coloring powder, which is much cheaper but lacks taste. "

                1. So how are we to know whether the saffron we're buying, regardless of price, is the "real thing"? A couple of years ago, one of the cooking magazines, perhaps Cooks Illustrated, rated saffron from Lancaster County, PA among the highest of those they tested. I've bought saffron at a well-known market in the Lancaster area called Shady Maple. I remember thinking at the time that it seemed to be relatively inexpensive, but I rationalized to myself, thinking it was because it was a local product. Now I'm wondering if it really was saffron. It seemed to be much like the saffron I've purchased in other places, but now I'm wondering if I just don't know what real saffron tastes like. Is there a "test" to determine if we've got the real thing?

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: CindyJ

                    The Wiki article on saffron has good images of saffron threads. The safflower article has an images of these flowers, which look more like small bushy dried flowers, not distinct threads.

                    1. re: paulj

                      True, the picture in the safflower article makes it easy to tell apart. But once the flowers are broken up (presumably during handling and packaging), the difference is not so obvious.

                      For example:


                      There's no problem if you're offered a large quantity for a low price -- you're getting safflower, end of story.

                      The question is whether unscrupulous people dilute or substitute real saffron with it. Going back to the OP, I would think that would be a crook's first choice, rather than making and dying a "hash of crocus parts", but maybe that's just me.

                    2. re: CindyJ

                      The process of harvesting saffron is ridiculously labor-intensive so "local" vs. "non-local" growing doesn't really alter the price because shipping cost is relatively negligible (although conceivably domestic labor costs would raise local prices).

                      1. re: ferret

                        If you buy saffron at the source, its never going to be cheap but it should be cheaper because you're cutting out middle-men, the exporters/importers companies, etc.. who all add costs to the final price. Coffee can be pretty labor internsive too if done properly where you're only picking out ripe coffee beans, but in the final cost of a cup of coffee not much of that goes back to the growers.

                        And, if we're talking about growing saffron, where does the best saffron come from? In the original article, Ottolenghi is selling Spanish saffron but that could just mean that was the best source for him to get it from and not necessairly because Spanish saffron is the best saffron.