Know Your Spices: The Exotic Saffron

Saffron is the most expensive spice on the market. A pound of this beautiful seasoning costs around $2,000 to $10,000, making it more luxurious than caviar and truffles. The history behind this spice is rich, and so is its flavor profile.

Saffron has had numerous uses such as seasonings, dyes, perfumes, medicine, and fragrances. In various cuisines, this exotic spice has been used in both savory and sweet dishes. From paella in Spanish cuisine to risotto in Italian cuisine and kulfis in Indian cuisine, saffron boasts a complex flavor profile with a fragrant aroma that will fill all of your senses.

This is the priciest spice by weight; hence, it is not a common ingredient in most people’s pantries. This article will discuss everything you need to know about saffron.


What Is Saffron?

Saffron comes from a flower called crocus sativus, or more commonly known as “saffron crocus.” The spice is basically the vibrant red stigmas of this flower that are collected and dried. The dried threads are then used as seasoning, dye, or infused into solutions for a variety of uses.

It is believed that this legendary spice was first cultivated and originated in Greece and gradually spread through Eurasia to North America and North Africa. However, today this spice is predominantly grown in Iran, Morocco, Spain, Greece, and India.

From the very ancient civilizations, saffron has been used medicinally to treat ailments such as colds, coughs, scarlet fever, insomnia, digestive issues, and heart issues. Research shows that saffron can cure several diseases effectively as it has flatus-relieving and diaphoretic properties. 

In textiles, saffron was also used to dye fabrics for its distinct bright yellow hues. Moreover, only one strand of saffron was needed to dye 10 gallons of water. If more strands were used in the same volume of water, then the color would be more intense and would become bright orange instead of yellow.

The crocus flower blooms only once a year, and only three stigmas of saffron are produced in each flower. It is still grown and cultivated the same way as it first was centuries ago. 

The tedious task of removing each stigma is done by hand, which makes it quite labor-intensive. To create only an ounce of saffron, it takes around five thousand crocus flowers. Its high price is mainly due to the labor and time it requires to harvest. 

Buying Saffron

Different saffron brands sell different qualities of saffron. Despite the varying prices, all of them are quite expensive. You need to always bear in mind that saffron is expensive.

If you see saffron being sold for around five dollars an ounce or less, it is fake. Real saffron has a strong fragrance that will make your nose tickle even through the packaging.

Furthermore, real saffron is fine and thread-like. The fake ones look like plastic and are too bright and shiny. Looks can be deceiving, but you can really spot the difference when you get a whiff of the very distinct aroma.

The final purchasing decision lies in the origin country of the spice. Your first choice should be Iranian saffron. It is richer and more intense, which makes it worth every penny. It has a deeper rouge and has a more defined sweet scent. 

However, Iranian saffron is difficult to find for many reasons like local bans of international export, the difficulty in cultivation, and embargo. The next best alternative is Spanish saffron. There are four grades of Spanish saffron: Rio, La Mancha, superior, and coupe.

The coupe is of top quality among the four. It has high amounts of crocin and the least amount of the flavorless yellow stem. Crocin is one of the key essential oils in saffron. If you do not want to spend that much on this grade of saffron or cannot find any, you can opt for the other grades. The other grades are still of top-notch quality, but they are also more affordable. Lower-grade saffron still tastes good but not as phenomenal as the coupe grade or Iranian ones.


What Does Saffron Taste Like?

Saffron is extremely aromatic and subtle. The flavors are quite complex and enigmatic; no amount of words can do justice to how it actually tastes. Despite being tricky to describe, it is so distinct that it is instantly recognizable in a dish.  

Real saffron has a sweet and floral taste. It has a complex nuanced flavor with earthy and floral notes. Be it savory or sweet, saffron adds a whole new dimension to the flavor profile of a dish.


How to Store Saffron

Saffron should be stored in small, compact, airtight containers. It should be kept to minimum contact with air to preserve its intense flavors in the delicate threads. It should be stored away from light in a dark place. The storage place should also be completely dry.

If it already has been stored in a refrigerator, do not take it out. Just take the strands you need and put the others back in the fridge immediately. The temperature change can affect the moisture, which can have a negative impact on the saffron.

How to Use Saffron

The best way to use saffron is by steeping it in a warm liquid. The ideal liquid is milk as it has the required fat and water content which help in the better infusion of the color and taste of saffron. It can also be steeped in water, stock, or white wine.

The liquid will help the color and flavors diffuse out of the strand and ensures even distribution. Then add saffron-infused water along with the strands in it to the dish toward the end of the cooking. This will keep the flavors pronounced.

You only need a small pinch for a large pot of food, giving the dish a fuller, richer, and more tantalizing aroma that will make your mouth water. Saffron goes best in rich dishes that contain rice or milk or both.

Hence, you will find that many Indian rice dishes with Persian influence use this magnificent spice. Some Italian recipes also call for using saffron-infused water.


Final Words

Saffron is a natural spice but very exquisite in its unique flavor profile and beautiful golden hue. If you want to make a heavy dish with rich flavors, a pinch of this extravagant spice can be the perfect addition.