Saffron. This exotic spice evokes images and scents of far and exotic places. Outdoor markets, or bazaars, filled with dates, nuts and tea leaves. It’s deep red threads yields a gorgeous and rich yellow color when soaked in hot water, making it a wonderful natural dye. But, it also carries a distinct aroma that reminds me of sweet family traditions dating back hundreds of years- culinary traditions I hope my children will continue and pass down to their children.
Did you know that saffron is a spice found from the crocus flower? Specifically, those threads are the three red stigmas inside the flower. It is native to Southwest Asia, but was first cultivated in Greece. Cherished in Iran and the middle-east, saffron is also widely used in Spain, Italy and the rest of Europe. Just like diamonds, saffron’s quality is graded and there’s even a number scale. For the best quality of saffron, choose saffron threads (not powder) that are dark red. Persian saffron have the most intense color and aroma, especially when compared to the more mild Spanish saffron.
Why is saffron so expensive, more expensive than oil or gold?
I’ve seen saffron in gourmet food markets sold in tiny glass bottles for as much as $20 for about 10 threads. The crocus flower requires specific weather conditions for it to flourish. And with the different varieties available, the best quality saffron is found in Kashmir and Iran. The crimson stigmas are hand-picked, collected and dried for distribution. Remember, each flower will produce only 3 threads of saffron.
Ground versus Threads:
When purchasing saffron, you can also purchase crushed or powdered saffron. It is less expensive than the full threads, but the quality is always in question. Ground saffron is typically mixed with turmeric and paprika, so might get the vibrant golden color you desire, but you won’t get the true flavor and intense aroma found only in pure saffron.
Two weeks ago, I found Spanish Saffron sold at Costco. It’s grade set at 230, and you can read Wikipedia’s explanation of the grade system here. I’m truly blown away by the swell of popularity here in the U.S. for this illustrious spice.
The best way to store saffron is in an airtight container and in the dark. I keep mine in my pantry. My mother-in-law likes to crush a bunch of saffron and mix it with a small bottle filled with warm water. Once it cools, she stores the bottle in the freezer. She likes to make it a high concentrate of water & saffron so when she needs it, she takes it out of the freezer and adds a bit of warm water to it. Since you only need a teaspoon at a time when cooking, you pour out what you need and return your bottle to the freezer. This is an easy way to store your saffron when you use large quantities at a time, like we Persians do.
Italians use saffron in risotto. My blogging buddy Wendy at The Weekend Gourmet has a fabulous Risotto alla Milanese you have to check out.
One of my favorite Spanish dishes using saffron is paella. This is the rice dish where anything goes in. The hubby and I prefer seafood paella.
Iranians have a truly special place in their hearts for saffron. We use it in everything. The most common way is to show off our basmati rice:
Oooh! Then there’s Chicken Kabob…
How about some quiche?
And have you tried our desserts?
We put saffron in our rice pudding (Sholeh-Zard)
We love saffron in our ice cream:
And it’s heavenly in our cookies:
And dreamy in cake, too!
I even use it in egg nog!
So there you go – basically everything you need to know about saffron.