Fun with Saffron

Saffron is tremendously expensive. When you buy it, you should get the most of it that you can.

When shopping for saffron, look for evenly colored, vivid red or deep orange threads. Lighter colored threads or a lot of pale streaks indicate lesser quality. Avoid powdered saffron, which is always cheaper but often inferior and adulterated with other flavourings.

Crush and soak saffron to release its flavor. Saffron threads are quite frail and can easily be crumbled between your fingers, although for a more uniform powder, use a surabachi or a mortar and pestle. Measure (or count) saffron threads before crushing. A "pinch" is about 20 medium saffron threads.

Saffron needs moisture to release its flavour. The best way to do this is to soak the threads in hot (but never boiling) liquid for 5 to 20 minutes. Then add both the saffron and the liquid to the recipe. As the saffron soaks, you'll notice the distinctive aroma indicating that your saffron "tea" is ready. It's nice soak the saffron in stock or wine (rather than water) to add to the overall flavour of a dish.

When adding saffron to soups, stews, salad dressings, and other recipes with a lot of liquid, you can simply toss the crushed threads in with the rest of the ingredients. But you will get a deeper, more pervasive saffron flavour by first soaking the crushed threads and then adding them.

For traditional paella recipes, cooks first toast the saffron threads in a dry skillet to bring out the volatile oils. I don't think that this step makes much difference in the final flavour of the dish.

Saffron is a fascinating spice native to the Eastern Mediterranean that holds two dubious claims to fame. Firstly it the most expensive spice in the world, the only other edible items that commands such a stratospheric price (apart from something you get from your dealer) is the white Alba truffle from Italy and Beluga caviar. Secondly, it is the most misunderstood spice, in terms of both identification and use.

The spice is simply the stigma of a type of crocus flower (Crocus sativus). The flower is strikingly beautiful, with six vivid violet petals containing three burnished golden stigmas. Here is the grabber, saffron must be gathered by hand and it takes 13000 stigmas to produce just one ounce. You don't have to do the math to realise that is a heck of a lot of work. That is why saffron is so stunningly expensive. I recently bought 10 grams of saffron wholesale in Australia. It cost AUD$25, making it close enough to AUD$75 an ounce and you can't even smoke the stuff!

There has always been much concern about adulterated saffron but as long as you shop at a reputable spice dealer there should be little worry. It is a very easy to identify saffron. Avoid any that is powdered and any that is uniformly red, as this is an indicator of dye. The real product will be as nature provided with 90 percent of the threads a deep full red, another 8 percent a pale gold and the tiny remainder almost white. When you break the seal on your package of saffron the aroma will be overwhelming, the mellow pungency of fresh tobacco mingling with citrussy highlights.

When cooking with saffron there is one hard and fast rule. Please repeat after me. Saffron is not about colour. The colour of saffron is undoubtedly appealing, but please try to forget this fact until your dish has hit the table. Saffron is first and foremost about flavour, with aroma coming a very close second. The colour should be treated as a bonus. If you are handing over big dollars just for saffron's colour, you are missing the point.

It is an essential ingredient in the almost mythological French seafood soup bouillabaisse as well as Spanish paella and the Italian risotto alla Milanese (recipe below), but it also has a multitude of other uses in the kitchen. I have recently been simmering wonderful autumnal pears in saffron infused syrup. It has often been said that a little saffron goes a long way and this is very true. However I can add this caveat; too much saffron can pull your dish down from the heights it would have otherwise attained. One of the myriad of flavour components that saffron provides is bitterness, which in small quantities can add a further dimension to the finished dish, use too much and your food will be overwhelmed.

For a simple introduction to the wonders of saffron try this risotto which is the traditional accompaniment to osso bucco.

Risotto alla Milanese



Bring the chicken stock to the simmer in a small saucepan and add the saffron. Heat the oil in a large heavy based pot and gently saute the onion for five minutes. Add the (unwashed) rice and stir to coat every grain with the oil. Stir like this for a few minutes and watch the grains. They will begin to go translucent with an opaque white centre. This is the rice's way of telling you that it is thirsty. Appease this request and add the wine. Stir the rice until it has absorbed almost all the wine. At this stage add a ladleful of the chicken stock and continue stirring. You may want to get yourself a glass of wine now because making risotto is a labour of love. It must be stirred constantly from beginning to end so that the starch contained in the rice is fully released, resulting in a rich risotto.

When the rice has taken in the first ladle of stock add more. Keep up this process until the rice is cooked (about 20 minutes), but remember not to cook it to mush. Each grain should have the slightest resilience when you bite into it. Add the butter and half the cheese, as well as the salt and pepper. Serve immediately and pass the remaining cheese separately. Serves 4.

Saf"fron [OE. saffran, F. safran; cf. It. zafferano, Sp. azafran, Pg. a&cced;afr&atil;o; all fr. Ar. & Per. za' faran.]

1. Bot.

A bulbous iridaceous plant (Crocus sativus) having blue flowers with large yellow stigmas. See Crocus.


The aromatic, pungent, dried stigmas, usually with part of the stile, of the Crocus sativus. Saffron is used in cookery, and in coloring confectionery, liquors, varnishes, etc., and was formerly much used in medicine.


An orange or deep yellow color, like that of the stigmas of the Crocus sativus.

Bastard saffron, Dyer's saffron. Bot. See Safflower. -- Meadow saffron Bot., a bulbous plant (Colchichum autumnate) of Europe, resembling saffron. -- Saffron wood Bot., the yellowish wood of a South African tree Elaeodendron croceum; also, the tree itself. -- Saffron yellow, a shade of yellow like that obtained from the stigmas of the true saffron (Crocus sativus).


© Webster 1913.


Having the color of the stigmas of saffron flowers; deep orange-yellow; as, a saffron face; a saffron streamer.


© Webster 1913.

Saf"fron, v. t.

To give color and flavor to, as by means of saffron; to spice.


And in Latyn I speak a wordes few, To saffron with my predication. Chaucer.


© Webster 1913.

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