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.
So why is it so expensive? It takes approximately 75,000 crocus flowers to produce 1-pound of saffron. All those flowers are all picked and plucked by hand.
Ground versus whole
When purchasing saffron, you can also purchase crushed or powdered saffron. Powdered 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.
A new product that is out is saffron water. This is crushed saffron steeped in water producing the deep orange color we all love. Like powdered saffron, I always question the quality of these products and whether artificial colorants are added to it.
My recommendation? Always buy whole saffron if you want to guarantee the quality of your ingredients. You want strands that are crimson in color, not orange. You don’t want to see any light orange or yellow in it.
Safflower is not saffron. Yes, there are all kinds of things out there being sold and confused with saffron. The lighter the strands, the less quality the saffron is, which means the color is not as bright and the flavor/fragrance is more mild.
The less the quality, the more quantity you will need to get the bright yellow color you are looking for.
How to store it
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. I have also featured saffron in a delicious seafood paella prepared over the campfire. This paella recipe is featured in my cookbook, The Camp & Cabin Cookbook.
In my first cookbook, Cooking Techniques & Recipes with Olive Oil, I share my recipe for steamed mussels with lemon saffron broth. Add a baguette and this sounds like the perfect meal to me!
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I still have saffron my family has brought for me from Iran, but I still ordered this saffron to try it out. The saffron threads are crimson red, its smells amazing and it produces a bright yellow color to your foods.
Saffron is from the red stigmas inside the crocus flower. This flower has 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. It takes approximately 75,000 crocus flowers to make one pound of saffron.
Saffron should be grounded in a mortar and pestle just prior to using it. Steep the crushed saffron in a little hot water and let it brew like tea for about 5-10 minutes. Then add this liquid to whatever you are cooking.
Saffron and turmeric are completely different spices and are NOT interchangeable. Saffron comes the stigma of the crocus flower while turmeric comes a root from the ginger family. Although they both turn your foods yellow, they have different flavor profiles and aromas.
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