Saffron’s crimson threads have been weaving a fabric of culture, cuisine, and history for millennia. While north Italian risottos and Indian biryani are immediate recipe choices, there are so many delicious things a cook can do with this delicate and luxurious spice.
What is Saffron?
Saffron is the dried pistil of the crocus flower, Crocus sativus. These threads serve as the pollen receptacle for the plant. If you are ever lucky enough to witness a crocus field at sunrise, you might see the vibrant red threads peeking through the ends of periwinkle flower buds.
Crocus sativus is generally believed to originate from Greece. The plant is no longer found in the wild, making its precise home harder to pinpoint. (Sativus is the Latin word for cultivated.)
Today’s leading saffron producers circle around the Mediterranean and Middle East. As our Spanish saffron importer explains, “The best environment conditions are given in the whole altitude meridian. If you see all the countries in that meridian strip have the right conditions to grow saffron. Spain, Greece, Morocco, Iran, India, and Pakistan”
Saffron is found in each of those country’s cuisines and more. Mediterranean, Italian, Indian, French, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, and Spanish, just to name a few.
Why is Saffron Expensive?
Saffron crocuses only produce three stigmas per plant. Each stigma must be picked by hand. It takes roughly 75,000 crocuses to produce a pound of saffron. Farmers walk between long rows of the fragile flowers, stooping over to pick them one by one.
IMG ALT TEXT: Farmer holds a pile of freshly picked purple saffron flowers with red stigmas sticking out.
The flowers themselves only bloom for a maximum of two weeks in autumn, beginning at the end of October. The stigmas must be harvested as soon as the flowers open. Farmers must walk their fields each day, keeping a close eye on the budding crocuses so as not to miss their moment.
Types of Saffron at The Spice House
To determine the quality of saffron, one must understand the anatomy of the flower. The pistol of the saffron flower includes the style and stigma. There are three red stigmas on each flower. Those three stigmas join together via the style. The style is a pale yellow color. Both stigma and style are edible and used in cooking, but the stigmas have a greater concentration of the essential chemical compounds that give saffron its unique flavor and vibrant color.
Both our Coupe saffron and Afghani saffron use only the stigma of the flower. Our Spanish superior saffron includes some of the yellow style, which is why it comes at a lower cost. The same is true for our powdered superior grade Spanish saffron.
How Do I Use Saffron?
Saffron works best in soups, stews, and rice dishes. For most recipes, it is best to gently break up a few saffron threads and place them into a small bowl. Carefully pour 2-4 tablespoons of water over the saffron threads and steep it like tea. You want the essence of the spice to diffuse into the water as much as possible before adding it to the dish. If you don’t, you’ll get hot spots in the dish and the overall flavor will not be balanced.
You can also drink this brew as herbal tea. Saffron is a pleasantly mild tea that is often blended with chamomile as they share complementary flavors and calming effects.
While steeping the threads is the most practical method, you can also add them right to the dish towards the end of the cooking process. Like a delicate herb, adding the spice too soon could diminish its flavor.
Saffron has a soft flavor profile that is highly concentrated. It isn’t sharp like freshly minced garlic, but its flavor will disperse just as efficiently. A few threads will season a large pot of potato leek soup with its golden color and mellow flavor.
Recipe Ideas for Saffron
Dried saffron smells sweet, like honey, hay, and pollen. Where cinnamon and pepper are warming, saffron is mild and cooling in a way. There are slightly metallic and bitter notes to the flavor as well.
Foods that go well with saffron include carrots, fennel bulbs, onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, ginger, turmeric, potatoes, parsnips, asparagus, artichokes, oranges, lemons, beans, eggplant, nuts, chicken, fish, shellfish, rice, pasta, cream, butter, and cheeses.
Herbs and spices to pair with saffron include basil, fennel seed, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cumin, curry powder, vanilla, amchoor powder, cardamom, tarragon, chai spices, and chervil. Two of our most popular curry blends highlight saffron too—Ras El Hanout and our Maharajah Curry.
Cardamom Saffron Ice Cream
If you have any questions about saffron or have a favorite saffron recipe to share, email us at spices@thespicehouse or leave a comment below.