Is there anything wrong with buying saffron? The item labeled saffron can be entirely fake or real saffron but adulterated with other substances. Fake saffron can be corn silk threads, safflower (an unrelated thistle), coconut filaments, dyed horsehair, or shredded paper.

saffron tests

What Is Saffron?

Saffron (Safran, Azafra'n), sometimes called RED GOLD, originated during the bronze age in ancient texts dating from the 7th century BC and spans many cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus flower (Crocus Sativus), has remained among the world's most costly spices throughout history. However, as an object of desire, it can also be a victim of fraud. Low-quality saffron is often traded on international markets, and the specifications for pure saffron are not always respected. With the help of saffron, you can give your food and Desserts like bamieh (Persian Tulumba with saffron) a unique flavor.

As a result of its high price, saffron is often tampered with to increase its value.

Important Factors In the Price of Saffron

In saffron, three factors are very important: Crocin (color), Picrocrocin (flavor), and Safranal (aroma). A higher amount of these compounds in saffron provide a higher quality of saffron. Grading of saffron is done through gauging Picrocrocin (flavor), Crocin (color), and safranal (aroma) content. These three factors determine saffron quality in the laboratory by ISO professionals.

The yellow saffron, also called American saffron or Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), looks like the real thing (Crocus sativus) but is much cheaper. The flavor is almost neutral, but it does have similar coloring abilities to the real thing.

real vs fake saffron

Other simple and proven methods can be used to test the quality of saffron without spending a lot of money on lab tests. We have categorized these tests into two groups – Sensory and Extrasensory.

We are using our sensory perceptions of Sight-Smell-Taste and extrasensory techniques of Cold Water Method, Float Test & Baking soda water test.

1. Identification of Saffron by Sight

The price of saffron greatly varies by the cut of the Saffron stigma or thread/filament.

  •  Saffron Grade 1 or A+ or All Red (Sargol or Negin): All red Saffron containing only stigmas. This grade of saffron is 100%, Premium Saffron. This is also natively known as Super-Negin or Sargol Saffron. It is the top 1/3 or 2/3 part of the Saffron filament. It is highly priced due to its rich color & aroma. It is the purest and finest quality saffron.
  • Saffron Grade 2 or Thread (Pushal): Saffron Grade 2 or Thread contains the red stigmas and the yellow/white style end. This category of saffron is also costly and mainly used for daily cooking.
  • Saffron grade 3 or B or Tied bunch (Dasteh): Contains the red stigmas connected to the entire style. This is typically low cost and low quality and available in all major local grocery stores. The overall weight of the thread contains more floral matter (Style). Its typical use is in perfumes (attars), fragrances, and incense & aromatic flavors.

saffron detail

It's better to look at the shape of the filaments, which should be trumpet-shaped and vivid Crimson Red, with a lighter orange-red color on the tips. Saffron should smell fresh and not musky at all.

A strand of reddish saffron changes to golden color when mixed with hot milk.

2. Identification of Saffron by Smell

The color of saffron is primarily attributed to the degraded carotenoids (Crocin and crocetin), while its flavor is attributed to the oxidation products (primarily safranal and Picrocrocin). The pure saffron aroma is exciting. If you know what honey and hay smell like, you will know what Real Saffron Aroma is. It is a blend of hay and honey smells.

3. Identification of Saffron by Taste

The bitter taste of saffron is due to the compound Crocus (i.e., Crocin). Saffron is bitter, and its flavor is quite distinctive. The taste is light, cutting, warm, and bitter, slowly dissipating from your palate. To determine if the saffron is genuine, all you need to do is ask the vendor for 3 or 4 threads of saffron which you put on your tongue and suck on for a few seconds. You will experience a sharp, bitter taste in your taste buds. Then spit the threads onto a clean paper tissue and rub them inside. You know you buy genuine saffron if the paper tissue color appears yellow. If the color appears red, you are being sold colored threads. Of course, note that its bitter taste does not transfer to food. An example of a dish flavored with saffron is Zereshk Polo ba Morgh—rice and chicken cooked together with barberries (zereshk).

4. Saffron identification with time for color release in water

Put the threads in a small container of tepid water. Wait at least 15 minutes. Real saffron slowly turns the water yellow. The color change may take up to an hour. The saffron threads themselves retain their red color. If the water changes color immediately, turns red, does not change color, or the threads lose their color, the substance is not saffron. Also, after they soak, natural saffron threads will remain intact if you rub them between your fingers. Fakes, on the other hand, tend to fall apart.

real vs. fake saffron

5. Saffron Identification with Float Test

Another test of real saffron is the Float Test. Real saffron threads do not drown when put in water. They would instead float. Fake saffron threads would partially or wholly submerge in water because of the heaviness of the colored dye or the floral waste on them.

6. You Can Identify Real Saffron with Baking Soda Test

Add a bit of baking soda to the water and mix it. Then add saffron to the mixture. The water/baking soda mix shall turn yellow if it's Pure saffron, and the fake one will turn dim red.

The benefits of saffron are endless. It is essential to buy quality/real saffron if you want to enjoy the goodness of this spice. Sometimes when you want to buy saffron, you may buy low-quality saffron or be unaware of the difference between real and fake saffron. You can identify high-quality saffron by using the tests mentioned in this article.

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