Saturday, March 5, 2016

Oh Saffron, My Saffron

As many of my friends can tell you, I really like saffron. I go through more of the stuff in a month than most Americans use in their entire lives.

If I were a medieval king, all my land would be used to grow saffron

Given that you're reading this blog, you probably can guess that I really like medieval European cuisine as well, and one of the more commonly used spices in the Middle Ages (at least for the wealthy) was saffron. In spite of it being the most expensive spice, it appears in 39% of the recipes in Forme of Cury (England, 1390) and 41% of the recipes in Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (England, 1430).

Of course when people are selling stuff that's expensive, some of it is going to turn out to be fake. This isn't just a modern problem. There are plenty of records of medieval trials and punishments for product adulteration. There are jerks in this world, and there always have been.

It turns out that some of the saffron I got a while back - stuff that seemed like a really great deal - isn't actually saffron. I don't have the money to find out what it actually is, but I thought it would be worthwhile to put up a brief guide on how to tell the real stuff from the fake.

The Threads

Saffron threads are the stigmas of the flower of Crocus sativus. They tend to be 25 to 30 mm in length, but can be much shorter because they get brittle and break easily when dry.

A pinch of saffron threads

In the above picture, note how the threads tend to be thicker at one end than the other, and the change in thickness is gradual. The color of the can also change, usually from dark red at the thick end to yellow at the tip.

A pinch of ... something else

Here the threads are strangely long, some up to 50mm. While there are some that look like they have thicker portions, closer examination shows them to be multiple strands twisted together. None of the threads change in thickness. There is a mix of colors, but each thread in itself is uniform of color.

A few saffron threads in water

When whole saffron threads are dropped into warm water, color starts to steep out immediately, though it can take a while.

Ugly, long strings of stuff in water

The fake stuff may also discolor the water, depending on what was used to make it look like saffron. Note that even though I've added about five times as much of the fake stuff as I did the real stuff in the previous photo, the fake stuff produces about the same amount of color.

Typically when I cook with saffron, I grind it up with a bit of salt using a small mortar and pestle. This helps the color and flavor diffuse more quickly into the food.

Saffron ground with salt

Note how small the particles of saffron are after it's ground, and how the salt takes on an orange-red color.

Foul, nasty strings of stuff kind of ground with salt

The fake threads however do not grind up easily. It is rather interesting to note some tiny yellow flecks and the yellowish tint to the salt. I suspect that there may actually be some low-grade (yellow) saffron or some other yellow plant material mixed in with the evil fake threads.

Yummy, saffron-infused water

Here I dumped the saffron-salt mixture into warm water and the color suffused through it immediately.

Bad, wicked, evil, naughty stuff in water

The fake threads ground with salt and dumped into water don't quite have the same effect. Many of them seem pretty much inert. Normally when I cook rice with a good pinch of saffron, the rice comes out a bright yellow color, but the one time I did that with the fake stuff the rice turned out beige and flavorless.

Another sign of bogus saffron is the scent. I love the fragrance of the real stuff, but the fake threads smell ... well, off. That's a hard thing to put on a web page though.

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