What is Saffron?
Coming from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, it takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound which explains why it is the world’s most expensive spice.
More Saffron Trivia
According to Greek myth, handsome mortal Crocos fell in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. But his favours were rebuffed by Smilax, and he was turned into a beautiful purple crocus flower.
A native of the Mediterranean, saffron is now imported primarily from Spain, where Moslems had introduced it in the 8th century along with rice and sugar.
Valencia coup (coupé meaning “to cut” off the yellow parts from the stigmas) saffron is generally considered the best, though Kashmir now rivals this reputation. Saffron is also cultivated in India, Turkey, China and Iran. The name is from the Arabic word zafaran which means ‘yellow’. The French culinary term safrané means ‘coloured using saffron’. Its colouring properties have been as prized as its unique flavour. In India its colour is considered the epitome of beauty and is the official colour of Buddhist robes.
Saffron was used to scent the baths and public halls of Imperial Rome. Pliny wrote that saffron was the most frequently falsified commodity, which has been true throughout history. Low grade saffron has even been treated with urine to give it colour, though it has most often been falsified with dried calendula or marigold.
The Romans initially brought saffron to England, though it was lost to them in the Dark Ages. It is claimed that in the 14th century a pilgrim to the Holy Land, smuggled back one crocus bulb in a hollow staff from which all English saffron supposedly descends. It is grown in great quantities in Essex, especially in a town called Saffron Walden, whose coat of arms includes three saffron crocuses. Francis Bacon wrote “it maketh the English sprightly”.
Saffron is the three stigmas of the saffron crocus. They are delicate and thread-like, each measuring 2.5 – 4 cm (1 -1.5 in). Its colour is a bright orange-red, and in high quality saffron this is uniform. Saffron threads bearing white streaks or light patches is inferior and when light specks appear in its powdered form it suggests adulteration.
Bouquet: Strongly perfumed, with an aroma of honey
Flavour: A pungent bitter-honey taste
Hotness Scale: 0
How to Buy Saffron
Most specialty food shops carry saffron, though if it has sat on the shelves for too long it may have lost flavor, so look for bright color.
Preparation and Storage
Because of its expense, intense flavour, and strong dying properties, very little saffron is required for culinary purposes and the key is to distribute it evenly throughout the dish being prepared. It can be crushed to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle. It is easier however, to steep the saffron in hot water— a pinch to a cup will create the desired flavour and colour. Good saffron should expand on contact with the water and a cup should be sufficient for 0.5 kg (1 lb) of rice. Powdered saffron is added directly to the required ingredients of a dish, though we recommend against buying saffron powdered, as it is so frequently adulterated. Store in a cool dry place, out of the light.
Cooking with Saffron
Saffron appears in Moorish, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. Its most common function is to colour rice yellow, as in festive Indian pilaus and risotto Milanese, where its delicate flavour make it the most famous of Italian rice dishes. It combines well with fish and seafood, infamous as a key ingredient of Spanish paella as well as bouillabaisse. In England, saffron is probably best known for its use in Cornish saffron buns where it is paired with dried fruit in a yeast cake.
Substitute for saffron
Use turmeric for color, not flavor or Safflower can also be used to impart similar color, but taste is decidedly inferior. Marigold blossoms, again for color, not flavor. Annatto seeds can also be used for color. Steep 1 teaspoon annatto seeds in 1/4 cup of boiling water for 30 minutes, discard seeds. Reduce liquid in recipe by 1/4 cup.
Saffron contains plant-derived compounds known to have anti-oxidant, disease-preventing and health-promoting properties. Saffron threads have essential volatile oils but the most important is safranal, which gives saffron its distinct hay-like flavor. Other saffron oils include: cineole, phenethenol, pinene, borneol, geraniol, limonene, p-cymene, linalool, terpinen-4-oil.
It has many non-volatile active components, including α-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which gives the stigmas their characteristic golden yellow color. It also contains other carotenoids including zeaxanthin, lycopene, α- and β-carotenes. These are important antioxidants that helps protect body from oxidant-induced stress, cancers, infections and acts as immune modulators. The active components have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-oxidant, digestive, anti-convulsant.
Saffron is a good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese and copper are used by the body as co-factors for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Iron is essential for red blood cell production.
Plant Description and Cultivation
A fall-flowering ornamental crocus that does well in warm climates. It grows to 15 cm (6 in) with long thin leaves. The blue-violet flowers contain the precious protruding orange stigmas.
Alicante Saffron, Autumn Crocus, Crocus, Gatinais Saffron, Hay Saffron Karcom, Stima Croci, Zaffer
Indian: kesa, kesram, khesa, zafran
Crocus sativus Fam: Iridaceae