By Juan J. San Mames
The same way you cannot replace the flavor of true vanilla beans in creme brulee, you cannot replace the flavor of saffron in your recipe. Saffron is not necessarily the most expensive spice in the world when you know how to buy it-but it is still a small investment. Thus, before you shop you must educate yourself. Saffron is actually the stigma of the crocus flower. It must be harvested and processed by hand, so it is a very labor intensive product with a rich history. Saffron is a unique flavor that is used in the cuisine of many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. It has a deep, bright color and an unmistakable flavor and aroma.
I have been importing saffron for over 28 years from all over the world and it all comes down to one word, coupe, or "cut"-this is how French chefs wanted their saffron in the early 1900's from their Spanish, French, German or Italian purveyors. They did not have the technological convenience of photospectrometry to measure the coloring strength of the saffron, but they were very wise and knew that only the red part of the stigma-3/8" to 1/2" length--was saffron. The orange/yellow/white part called the style, up to 2.5" in length, has no saffron flavor and therefore has no culinary value whatsoever.
Where is the saffron?
The stigma with the style left attached is up to 2" 1/2 inches in length. ONLY 3/8" TO 1/2" has saffron the lower part the STIGMA is called the STYLE, which has NO CULINARY VALUE. When left attached it could add up to 37% or more weight (when its left attached and moisture trapped inside). Make sure your saffron is ALL RED, COUPE (cut). No orange or yellow waste.
Moisture adds weight, lowers its color,
aroma, flavor and shelf life.
When the style (yellow, see picture in right) is left attached to the stigma (red), the moisture trap will add more weight, making it more expensive, and the quality of the saffron will deteriorate rapidly, shortening its shelf life. Also, this trapped moisture will develop a "musty smell" that food writers confuse as "musty saffron aroma." Furthermore, this humidity will reflect significantly in the overall quality, flavor, aroma, and color of your dish. On the other hand, coupe (all red, no yellow) will have all the positive attributes lacking in the other saffron. Only coupe saffron has a clean, nutty/honey aroma. It is crunchy to the touch, and because all of its moisture has evaporated, its shelf life will be indefinite as long as you keep it tightly close and away from the light. When you look at this saffron under the microscope it looks like red crayon. This is how French chefs wanted it in the 1900's and this is how you should demand it too.
How much to use?
While I recommend 1/8 of a gram (.125 one capsule for 4 portions) I usually like the saffron on the "heavy" side, so I tend to use .250 of a gram or 1/4 of a gram which equals to about 1/2 teaspoon; especially when I make paella.
How do you assess the quality of saffron?
There is just a slight variant in the DNA markers of saffron to pinpoint the country of origin. However, there are no major differences in the saffron (Crocus sativus linneaus) grown in different countries or in your back yard. The real difference in saffron quality is "made" by cutting the yellow (style) off the red (stigma). The only way to measure the quality of saffron is by photospectrometry; there is not other way. The more style (yellow) you cut the higher its color reading will get; if you cut all of it and cure/dry right after harvest, you will have absolute quality all around. Qualifications like "Denomination of Origin" do not mean anything for saffron like it does for wine. These are awarded by self-regulated, self-serving organizations that do not guarantee the quality of saffron in any way. In laboratory tests of such saffron they are around 190 units of coloring strength.
Only the Swiss International Organization for Standardization (ISO) regulates saffron, and only when you see its identification in the actual blister card or tin of saffron is that you can trust the saffron's quality. However, while ISO-3236 (the regulatory code for saffron) states that Category I, should have a minimum of 200 units of color, this is not good enough. Saffron can hit in the range of 250 to 270 degrees of coloring strength at harvest time, and stabilizes after harvest at around 230/250 when properly cured. So, when you see Category I and no number range--230/240 for example-- it only means 200 and this is a minimum that has been manipulated.
In other words, the packer has mixed or manipulated the amount of yellow in the saffron, in order to get the lowest degree allowed (200) with the highest possible profit for him. You have the right to see laboratory reports from your particular purchase: unless you see Category I, coloring strength 230/250, you product is not optimum quality. In conclusion: the higher the coloring strength the better the saffron and its other attributes; color, flavor, aroma and shelf life.
Who is the biggest producer? Who is the best producer in the world?
Iran is the biggest producer of saffron in the world and by virtue of its volume it also produces the best saffron in the world. Saffron is a very important agricultural commodity in Iran, so all of its saffron grades are meticulously calibrated. All of its exportations must have a government ISIRI laboratory report from a random sample chosen by the customs officer from the lot to be exported. In other countries the sample is presented by the packer himself and not from the lot to be exported. Spain is the biggest importer and exporter, but a very small producer with a production of around 400 kilos or less. Yet they export to the USA over 12,000 plus kilos; the vast majority of it being lower-grade Iranian. They import bulk and re-pack it as product of Spain. As you know, in the European Union once a product enters their country they can re-pack it and re-name as their own. This is why it is important to educate yourself on the spice so you can buy quality and get the most out of your saffron.