SUPPLY GUIDE: Saffron signature

Lakhi Sawlani offers advice on picking the highest quality 'red gold'

Agrimount General Trading managing director Lakhi Sawlani.
Agrimount General Trading managing director Lakhi Sawlani.

Dubai based F&B specialist and Agrimount General Trading managing director Lakhi Sawlani offers his advice on picking the highest quality 'red gold':

An oft-repeated question was posed by the purchase executive of a leading food company: “Is this saffron pure?” Having been involved with marketing and promoting the virtues of genuine saffron for over 25 years, I have had the opportunity to interact with consumers, chefs, purchasers, sales executives, farmers and food control officials, to talk and give advice about this mysterious spice.

The central question I am always asked relates to purity and quality of saffron. Saffron — also considered the most expensive spice on earth — has historically been subjected to adulteration and unethical selling practices by those wanting to make a quick buck.

To make matters worse, in 2008 a severe production shortage resulted in huge price hikes, greater concerns about adulteration and more confusion. Production levels have since been recovering but it will take a few years to reach pre-2008 levels.

Saffron is the three dried red stigmas attached to their yellow ‘styles’, obtained from flowers of the Crocus Sativus Linneus plant. Grown mainly in Iran, Afghanistan, India and Spain, due to limited production it is costly and referred to as “red gold”. When added to food it makes it extra-special, producing a distinctive aroma and flavour with a yellow-golden infusion. In the catering sector, saffron plays a significant role in Arabic, Indian, and Iranian cuisine.

I believe one method of ensuring that genuine high-quality saffron prevails is to train those using this ingredient to accurately judge its quality themselves. There is a tendency to buy saffron at low prices with assurances from vendors claiming “the best quality”. However, buying saffron isn’t the same as buying other ingredients. The first question to be asked is about purity. In our region, since all food shipments are tested by the local food control authority and released only if pure, we can safely assume that all officially imported saffron is pure.

The next question is about the quality one is paying for. This can be determined by checking the pack label, whether it mentions the category as per ISO-3632 norms. There are four possible categories (1-4), based on principal properties of saffron, namely its natural colour, aroma and flavour.

If a high performing saffron is desired, then category-1 should be bought. If lower cost is desired, then categories 2, 3 or 4 would be fine. A physical inspection can be carried out by soaking a few filaments in two cups, one filled with hot water, the other with cold water, to judge the colour, aroma, expansion ratio and time taken for the infusion to develop. To an extent, these tests will confirm the category. A higher category will also have a more pleasant aroma and flavour.

Once the correct quality has been deduced, the next step is to check the packaging and weight. I prefer plastic jars or boxes over pouches to avoid crushing of saffron filaments, particularly for category one.

Some catering outlets buy saffron in large packs of one kilogramme to lower the cost. Actually, ideal pack sizes for catering are small sealed plastic jars or boxes, between two to five grams.

This allows better dispensing and less chance of spoilage as happens with larger packs in which all the quantity cannot be consumed in one day; the saffron must be dispensed over several days, risking moisture, contamination and powdering. The last step is to negotiate a price for the selected quality, comparing with brands in the same category.

Recipes generally describe saffron as filaments, threads or strands and a good measure is three filaments for 200 ml of liquid.

To coax the best result out of saffron, soak the filaments in a little hot water or milk depending on the recipe and allow 20 minutes for the infusion to develop. To speed this process, after five minutes of soaking, lightly press the filaments with a spoon against the bowl. Add the infusion to the dish towards the end of cooking period.

Adding saffron without prior soaking prevents proper extraction of its natural colour, aroma and flavour. Saffron works well with dairy products and complements flavours such as pistachio, almond, rose, cinnamon and cardamom. Popular recipes are paella, bouillabaisse, risotto Milanese, biryani, ras malai and kulfi.

Lakhi Sawlani is a Dubai-based F&B specialist with wide-ranging regional experience. He is managing director at Agrimount General Trading LLC.

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