Learning about Saffron is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Latin Name: Crocus Sativus
Saffron - a mysterious spice that is more expensive that gold by weight, rare and extremely labor intensive to produce, enigmatic in it’s nature and nuances, beloved by the cuisines of cultures from Spanish to Italian, to Middle Eastern to Indian.
Where Does Saffron Come From?
Saffron is extracted from the stigmas of the saffron crocus. The plant is native to Greece, the Middle East and South Asia, and is now cultivated extensively in Southern Europe and North Africa.
As mentioned earlier, saffron is not an easy spice to process. Each stigma of the crocus needs to be individually handpicked, and can be extremely fiddly. Saffron crocuses bloom almost all together, and there is frantic activity at the time of harvest, which involves a massive number of people working together very quickly, sometimes for over forty hours a week. Once harvested, the stigmas need to be dried fast. They are usually sun dried first, then spread out over mesh baskets and baked over hot coals, so they dry out, but with some moistness and elasticity. If the stigmas are left too long without drying, they will decompose and get moldy.
Currently, Iran, Spain, India and Greece are the major producers and exporters of saffron. Kashmir, in India, produces some of the world’s best saffron, however, conflict in this region has meant that supply of this particular varietal is now very limited and, as a result, extremely expensive. The majority of the saffron available in North America, thus, tends to be either Spanish or Iranian, with Spanish at the lower end of the price scale.
Saffron Flavour Profile:
Saffron is an intriguing spice. While its predominant top notes are musky floral, it is hard to describe what this spice really is all about. You can always tell when real saffron has been used in a dish (and conversely, when it has not), but at the same time, if anyone asked you to describe what qualities saffron has added to it, you would struggle. Every person perceives this spice differently; it has been described variously as floral, hay-like, grassy, honey or even salty. Saffron can have slightly bitter undertones to it, however, used properly, it adds that special touch of je ne sais quoi to any dish that it graces.
Storing and Using Saffron
The best kind of saffron is brilliantly crimson, with slightly lighter, shiny threads on the inside. Dull red saffron is older, and the longer it is kept, the less intense the aroma and flavor.
Saffron should ideally be used within a year of harvest, when its threads are not overly dry or brittle. Once harvested and dried, saffron is stored in airtight bottles, and, as is usual with spices, in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight or heat.
Saffron is an intense spice and should be used sparingly, just a few threads at a time. It needs to be soaked in a little warm water, milk or white wine before being added to dishes. If added directly to dishes, it might clump together, and not release its complete aroma and flavor. An Iranian friend once told me that they crush the threads in a small mortar and pestle with a pinch of sugar, then dissolve them in warm milk, after which this mixture is added to dish being cooked.
Along with its culinary use, saffron is also widely used in herbal medicines, the perfume industry, fabric dyeing and in cosmetics. The health benefits of saffron are being currently researched and there is some weak evidence that it helps in combating stress, depression as well as being good for vision.
And finally, did you know that almost 75,000 flowers are needed to produce just one pound of dry saffron? That’s about a couple football fields worth of crocuses right there.
Want to try a few dishes that use saffron? Here are a few ideas from my website: Saffron and Rosewater Lassi, Kesar Badam Milk (Spiced Almond and Saffron Milk), Saffron Cardamom Macarons, Saffron Kulfi.
Have a spice you’d like to see profiled? Let us know in the comments.