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The major exporter of Saffron nowadays is Spain but other countries such as Italy, Greece and India also produce Saffron.
First, check the depth of the red colour of the strands. the deeper the colour, the better the colour. Second, check how many of the strands are yellow rather the red. The more red strands, the higher the quality. In the close up of the picture above you will see that there are relatively few yellow strands and the red colour is deep and vibrant. Whilst this is not the absolute top quality saffron, it's in top 20% for quality. Always go for strands of Saffron, never ready ground saffron. Ground saffron may well contain ingredients other than saffron such as paprika.
COOKING WITH SAFFRON
Alternatively sprinkle the saffron in a cup of warm water and leave it to soak for 15 minutes. Add the contents of the cup evenly to the dish.
Now consider what is the purpose of adding the saffron. Is it mainly for colour, taste /aroma or both? The paella above has many strong flavours in it which will overcome the taste / aroma of saffron. In paella the main reason for using saffron is to colour the rice. So in this case, add the saffron early on in the cooking process. This will allow the saffron to colour the rice well although the majority of its taste will be lost in the cooking process.
The later the saffron is added, the more its aroma and taste will be apparent but the less colour it will impart to the rice.
ALTERNATIVES TO SAFFRON
if you really must use an alternative to saffron then use food colouring, but very little of it. It will colour food and has no detectable taste. In fact, restaurants which serve paella often use yellow food colouring and in general, the Spanish accept that saffron alone will not colour a paella to that desirable yellow colour.
In Spanish restaurants which serve paella, yellow food colouring is an accepted ingredient because the appearance of food compliments its flavour. However, saffron is a very valuable spice and the producers will argue otherwise. The proof though is in the cooking - adding even large amounts of saffron to a paella achieves very little of that yellow colour.
The question is, how much food colouring to use for colouring paella? From our experience 2 teaspoons will give a paella for four reasonable colouring. Be careful not to use too much otherwise a garish and unbelievable yellow colour will be the result.
If food colouring is not for you then turmeric which is well past its "sell by" date is the next best alternative. Age will have caused it to loose much of its flavour but not its ability to colour rice yellow.
Powdered saffron is occasionally sold and it is inevitably cheaper compared to saffron strands. The reason for the price differential is simple, the quality of powdered saffron is significantly lower compared to strands of saffron. In some cases, the powdered versions are adulterated with paprika or marigold.
HOW TO STORE SAFFRON
WHERE TO BUY SAFFRON
As far as prices are concerned, a saffron is cheaper when bought online but the additional postage costs make the final price about the same as supermarkets.