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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 Costco.com. 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.

                    3. I used to grow my own, they are really easy and hardy bulbs (and pretty too), if anyone is interested. Harvesting is easy- just pick off the stamens, dry them out a bit and put them in a zip lock bag. I had saffron coming out my ears until I moved to another house and didn't take them with me. I haven't started them up again yet. You can order the crocus over the internet.

                      1. Interesting. I'm wondering about the statement that fake saffron turns water orange-red from the dye. Is "orange-red" the key here, versus a more yellow-orange color? I ask because I'm fairly confident about the legitimacy of the saffron I buy (looks, smells, tastes, and is priced like the real thing as far as I can tell), and I typically bloom it in water or another liquid, which always turns quite dark orange. The color descriptor in Ottolenghi's claim certainly seems like shades or gray (or, rather, orange).

                        1. Maybe it's as simple as "if it's too good to be true..."--a large quantiy at a cheap price is a red flag. But, if you want only the color, not the incredible flavor, maybe that's okay, too.

                          1. Nobody who has cooked with saffron could possibly mistake fake for real. It's probably the most pervasive, penetrating and totally unmistakable flavor imaginable. My late pa-in-law gave me a box of the real stuff maybe five years ago for Christmas, and because it is threads instead of powder, and is in a well-sealed container, the same tiny pinch flavors a big pot of salt-cod stew as well as it did on my first try. This stuff is the spice equivalent of an expensive but very well-built machine: large original investment, but lasts so long that you more than get it all back.

                            If you want to know what it smells like, stop by and ask me to open up my undercounter lazy susan, where the tin lives. In spite of the saffron's being in a sturdy zip-lock inside a well-sealed tin, the smell of it still pervades that whole area.

                            1. I bought a small jar from Penzey's. What do you think, is that the real deal?

                              7 Replies
                              1. re: AnneMarieDear

                                I can't comment on the saffron Penzey's currently sells, but about three years ago, I bought some of their Kashmiri saffron (which has since been discontinued). There's no way that saffron was not the real deal --- just a pinch into a soup made my entire kitchen smell strongly of saffron. It was amazing stuff!

                                1. re: AnneMarieDear

                                  If it's from Penzey's, bet on it. They are almost painfully honest about their products - if I'm remembering correctly, it is they who discuss the difference between imitation wasabi and the real thing, offer both, and suggest that many of us might prefer the imitation.

                                  If a small pinch dissolved in warm wine or water will flavor a two-cup batch of rice, it's real!

                                  1. re: Will Owen

                                    Ok, good. I like Penzey's and am glad to hear they're the good folks I think they are.

                                    1. re: AnneMarieDear

                                      If I didn't have the Indian source for Kashmiri saffron, I'd order from Penzey's, so that's high praise indeed. Happy eating (and smelling!)

                                      1. re: pine time

                                        Thank you for the reassurance, now I just need to get in the kitchen and use it!
                                        The temps need to drop first!

                                        Cinnamon was my Penzey's revelation. I wandered in to the store once, bought a couple of cinnamon varieties, and never looked back. It was far and away superior to the grocery store stuff I had been buying.
                                        My spice cupboard is now packed to the gills with lovely spices, herbs, and blends.

                                        It's the little things, yes? :)

                                  2. re: AnneMarieDear

                                    The only saffron I've every used is from Penzey's so I have nothing to compare it to. That being said, I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of it. I definitely taste the saffron in my paella.

                                  3. I know some cooks in the best restaurants in Vegas, and I'm just going to trust that they know what real saffron is. The smell and taste is unique.

                                    1. My father makes a lot of paella.  He buys the saffron for us and gets the Mancha.    You can definitely recognize the smell of real saffron once you smell it.   I would never buy a powder, for sure.   In over 40+ years of him purchasing saffron, we got an inferior not real saffron, and that's because he bought something very inexpensive, one of those to good to be true things, and it was.

                                      Here is an interesting article about saffron.  


                                      1. Understand that there are many people who don't like the medicinal overtones of saffron, so are quite happy with safflower.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: Karl S

                                          I wish I had relatives who would ship me saffron!

                                          I bought a bottle of saffron at trader joes and had to keep adding and adding more when I was making shrikhand. I wasn't quite satisfied with it, but maybe I expected to add less than I was supposed to- didn't have a recipe handy to use a measured amount. I will have to pay out the $$ to get it from Penzeys next time.

                                          1. re: MoCoMe

                                            Saffron powder, like most ground herbs, will fade pretty quickly, but saffron threads will last an awfully long time if kept enclosed and dry. As I mentioned above, mine is still going strong after maybe six years.

                                            1. re: Will Owen

                                              Wow, I don't have the will-power to stretch my saffron supply out nearly that long! Since the relatives come from India often (well, often enough!), I have 'em bring small packets that I can use up before the next trip.

                                        2. I just used the saffron that I purchased in a market in Jerusalem and it was bland. I asked the guy why the saffron in the old city was so cheap. (His was more expensive). He said, they use corn husk "hair" and dye it red. Come to find out: that is what HE SOLD ME! If you soak it in water, the fake saffron will turn light colored like corn hair. Real saffron will remain bright orange if soaked for ten minutes. Check out this You Tube if you need a demo.