Where To Buy Saffron
Saffron is surging in popularity, from little gastropubs in the UK to the Michelin-starred restaurants of Europe, from food trucks in the USA to the new fusion hotspots of Asia. And with demand skyrocketing everywhere, the world’s major producers are looking to increase their output, and more and more saffron distributors and wholesalers are popping up to meet the market’s needs.
For consumers, this means there are more choices than ever when it comes to buying saffron. It’s available in local supermarkets as well as specialty food shops, through online sellers and in ethnic groceries.
But this explosion of options also means that knowing where to buy saffron—really top-quality saffron, anyway—is more confusing than ever.
Not all saffron is created equal.
Saffron from large, industrial farming operations is often produced using shortcuts that result in a lower quality product. Worse yet, their saffron may contain pesticides or other harsh chemicals.
And sadly, some unscrupulous saffron vendors are even selling an adulterated product, meaning that unwary buyers run the risk of purchasing watered-down or inferior saffron (or should we say, “saffron”).
In this short guide, we’ll tell you where to buy saffron that is actually worth the high price tag—and how to avoid the most common mistakes that new saffron buyers often make.
Not all the same
Saffron is saffron, it’s all the same thing, right?
If only it were that simple. But saffron is like other ultra-premium food products: there is a complex grading and standards system in place to differentiate the really top-notch varieties from lower quality products and imitators.
When buying saffron, look for vendors selling “sargol” saffron. This is saffron that uses only the deep crimson tips of the flower’s stigma—the richest and most potent part of the plant. Gram for gram, sargol saffron will provide superior colour, aroma, flavour, and medicinal benefits.
Consider the source
When deciding where to buy saffron, you should also consider where it actually came from, originally.
Saffron may be a spice—plucked, processed, and dried by the time it reaches your kitchen—but it comes from the delicate little crocus flower. First and foremost, saffron is a living thing...and one that’s tremendously sensitive to its environment.
Just like the best wine comes from the best grapes, which only take on their full flavour in a very few parts of the world, with just the right environmental conditions, genuine sargol saffron only comes from a handful of growing locations.
It’s generally agreed that the Khorasan region of Iran has the ideal combination of climate as well as soil and water quality for producing really top-grade saffron. But even in Khorasan, there are differences between saffron farming operations.
You have everything from large new industrial farming outfits, with all that this entails, to those tiny family farms that have been working with the same heritage bulbs for generations.
So rule of thumb: If at all possible, look for Persian saffron suppliers who avoid the agribusiness end of saffron production, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll end up with a superior product.
The harvest matters
Saffron harvesting is one of the most delicate, labour-intensive processes in all of agriculture, which is a large part of why saffron is so expensive.
Saffron plants are most active just before dawn. This is why, traditionally, they are only harvested in the dark, in the narrow window just before the sun rises—and never in the heat of the day.
Unfortunately, some of the larger farming concerns have abandoned these traditional methods in order to produce larger quantities of saffron in order to meet the demand of their wholesalers and exporters.
That’s bad news for saffron buyers: harvesting this way drastically reduces the potency of the final product. That means less flavour, fainter colour, weaker aroma, and decreased medicinal effects.
All of which translates to less value for money than if you’d bought from a small-batch, traditional grower!
And saffron potency isn’t just a subjective matter—it’s actually regulated by ISO standard (ISO 3632) and can be lab tested. These tests prove (scientifically) that not all saffron is the same.
The harvest is perhaps the single biggest factor in determining saffron potency and purity. So look for saffron suppliers who only source from farms which still do things the old-fashioned way. And ideally, check to make sure that their end product has been evaluated in a lab to meet (or exceed) the ISO standard.
Produced the right way
Once the saffron has been plucked, it must be dried before it’s ready to sell or ship.
And here too, you’ll find the giant corporate farms taking shortcuts to meet their unrealistic production quotas: they actually use harsh machine and heat dehydration techniques to dry their saffron faster!
Unfortunately for them (and anyone who buys from them), faster isn’t always better. Machine drying is virtually guaranteed to break down the fragile biochemical compounds in saffron that make the spice so valuable in the first place. And this means (you guessed it) lower potency and quality!
The little farmers in Iran, on the other hand, have known the best way to dry saffron for about 4000 years. Want to know the secret?
Place the plucked stigmas in a cool, shady, well-ventilated room. Then wait. The dry desert air will do its work in a few days!
Low tech, huh? But effective. This method dries saffron for sale and shipping without losing one iota of its flavour, aroma, or medicinal power.
So when deciding where to buy saffron, seek out sellers who are committed to the old and slow way of processing their product.
Reputation is everything
The saffron boom of the past decade or so has resulted in a host of new players in the market.
And some of these folks are actually great—committed to producing a top-end product and delivering a great customer experience.
Others? Ahem...not so much. We hesitate to use the term “fly by night”, but unfortunately there do seem to be some businesses out there just looking to cash in on the saffron craze and make a quick buck.
So do your research carefully and make sure you’re buying from a well-established company—either one that’s been around for years or at least seems to have a good track record of satisfied customers.
And remember: there’s no substitute for actually trying the product out for yourself in your own kitchen! That’s why most professional vendors will offer trial sizes of saffron in the 1g-2g range, so that you can sample their product for yourself before committing to a larger purchase.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to buying saffron!