What is saffron and why is it so special? This expensive and illustrious spice may be intimidating. In this post, I explain everything you need to know about saffron, from where saffron comes from, how to choose the best saffron and many delicious saffron recipes.
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. My goal for this post is share with you everything you need to know about saffron.
What is saffron?
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?
One question I always get is, “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. That’s it.
Not all saffron is over priced. Did you know I sell saffron here on my blog for $8 to $25, varying on quantity.
Ground saffron versus saffron 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 you might get the vibrant golden color you desire, but you won’t get the true flavor and intense aroma found only in pure saffron.
Recently, 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.
How to store saffron
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 and 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.
Recipes using saffron
Italians use saffron in risotto. My blogging buddy Wendy at The Weekend Gourmet has a fabulous Risotto alla Milanese you have to check out. My pal Jenni Field from Pastry Chef Online shows you how to make Ottolenghi’s Saffron Crackers with Citrus Fennel Sea Salt. Paella is a classic Spanish dish that features saffron and Sandi from Fearless Dining shares her easy gluten free paella using brown rice.
And another great friend, Beth over at OMG Yummy, shares my love of saffron as well as her favorite Tasting Jerusalem recipes using saffron. Of course I use saffron all the time in my cooking, too. Here are some of my personal recipes that feature my favorite spice, saffron.
Persian Chicken Kabob (Joojeh Kabob or Kabob-eh Morgh) is incredibly moist and flavorful because of it's saffron, onion and yogurt marinade.
This roasted chicken gets it’s golden color and fragrant flavor from baking in a saffron butter glaze.
The key to making basmati rice is to partially cook it first in boiling water, then to steam it until cooked through. If you cook the rice for too long in the boiling water, you will have a lumpy mess after you steam it.
Shirin Polo is a Persian basmati rice dish traditionally served at weddings and other social occasions. Studded with candied carrots, orange peel, raisins, almonds and pistachios it makes one beautiful meal or a unique side dish to chicken, fish or any roast.
Sabzi Polo (Persian Herbed Rice ) is a truly symbolic dish to celebrate the first day of spring, the first day of the Persian New Year (Nowruz).
It's easy to whip up foodie holiday gifts from your kitchen. Grind up sea salt with saffron to make some golden saffron salt or dry up fresh garden herbs for homemade spice packs.
The Persian kuku is similar to a quiche, but is a little more dense. This recipe for Persian Fingerling Potato Quiche with Chives (Kookoo Sibzamini) is a twist of the traditional Persian version and uses sliced potatoes instead of mashed.
Add a touch of gourmet with a very simple ingredient. Whip up some golden Saffron Mashed Potatoes for your next meal!
Sholeh Zard is a Persian saffron rice pudding made with basmati rice, sugar, rosewater and saffron. It is garnished with cinnamon, pistachios and almonds.
These golden and aromatic Persian Saffron Raisin Cookies (shirini kishmishi) are not only swoon-worthy to serve to your friends and family, but also very simple to make.
Try a bit of the exotic with this No-Churn Persian Ice Cream with Saffron (bastani) and Rose Water. It’s easy to make at home and WITHOUT an ice cream machine.
Fresh ground saffron is not just for paella! It makes this buttery saffron raisin pound cake aromatic, exotic and delectable!
I have also featured a recipe with saffron in my first cookbook, Cooking Techniques & Recipes with Olive Oil. A bowl of Steamed Mussels with Lemon Saffron Broth and a baguette sounds like the perfect meal to me!
So there you go – basically everything you need to know about saffron.