Dried organic red saffron Spice in a stone bowl on wooden background

Truffles, caviar, saffron—when it comes to cooking, extreme ingredients are as perennially trendy as they are a bit intimidating. After all, who wants to shell out only to realize they've got a fake, or worse, something expired? With tiny saffron strings, the problem is twofold—it's easy to lose this minute container somewhere in the spice rack. Luckily, it's easy to figure out for yourself whether your saffron is still worthy of whipping up a paella.

However, the bad news first: Like any spice, saffron will eventually lose its flavor and potency, and can be too old to use in cooking. Saffron's expiry date typically comes after one to four years, depending on whether it's whole or ground. And it's critical to avoid using good saffron directly from the bottle, right over something being cooked (that's the quickest way to spoil spices). If you've got some saffron you're unsure about, however, knowing when to purge the spice from your cabinet ensures that you'll only use the freshest flavors when you do decide to go all-in on a saffron-infused dish.

How to determine saffron's expiry date

  1. First and foremost, you can look at the expiration date on your container of saffron. If it's in the past, throw the saffron away. By the way, ground saffron has a typical shelf life of one to two years. Whole spices usually stay fresh longer, up to four years. In general, if spices are larger in size and whole, the more slowly it loses its flavor. 
  2. Look at the color of the saffron. If the saffron has faded from its original orange-red color, it may no longer be fresh.
  3. Crush the saffron in your hand. If it has a faint aroma or is excessively brittle, it is too old to use. And what does saffron smell like, anyway? It should have an aroma that is both earthy and floral, and to some, reminiscent of tobacco.

Knowing your saffron vs. your kesar

Okay, this is a bit of a trick question—kesar actually is saffron, in Hindi (and as such, the process for determining your kesar expiry date is the same). The real question here isn't the difference between kesar and saffron, or American saffron vs. Indian saffron. It's realizing whether you have the real deal or a dupe. "American saffron" often refers to the orange-red stigma from safflower, not crocus, which looks like the real thing but shares none of its flavor. Though the Pennsylvania Dutch have a long history of growing and harvesting the crocus flowers that yield this pricy spice, most genuine saffron comes from Iran, Afghanistan, India, Spain, Morocco, and Italy.

How to store saffron at home

Once you've got the real stuff in hand, whatever you do, don't store your saffron in the refrigerator. It might seem like a great way not to forget about your new investment, but saffron can easily absorb moisture from the fridge, which will make it go bad more quickly (the last thing you want). Instead, wrap it in light-blocking aluminum foil, and place it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. And the next step? Get to planning that paella dinner party, of course. You have so many different ways to reassure your guests that yes, that vivid yellow dish is totally the real deal.