When used properly in a dish, saffron lends a flavor that can't quite be pinned down.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the galaxy, at $1,000 per pound of saffron threads.
Why so expensive? Technically speaking, when you use saffron, you’re using the reddish-orange sex organs from a crocus flower, the stigma. Imagine plucking three tiny threads from inside a blooming crocus, imagine how much those must weigh (and remember that they are called threads for a reason), and you will understand why it takes about 14,000 saffron threads to make an ounce’s worth. At three per flower, that’s over 4,600 crocus flowers just for an ounce.
This is why modern anthropologists are certain that many ancient societies had an awful lot of time on their hands.
From Ancient Times to Modern Day
And ancient is where saffron began. While we’re only sure it’s been used as a spice for 3,000 years or so, prehistoric humans used saffron to tint paints used in depictions 50,000 years ago. That’s right — even 50,000 years ago, people were hunched over plucking the stigmas from crocuses.
Saffron has been used in medicines, as a dye, in perfumes, and even woven into cloth as far as 12,000 years ago by ancient Sumerians and Persians. More recently, England’s King Henry VIII forbade ladies of his court from dyeing their hair with saffron solutions, fearing a shortage of the spice.
True to its ancient origins, most saffron today is grown in the Middle East and Mediterranean area. In fact, 94% of the world’s saffron production comes from Iran. However, saffron is cultivated worldwide. Even the United States has a bustling saffron industry — the Pennsylvania Dutch brought saffron over in a trunk and began cultivating it in Lancaster County by 1730. Still today, this is the nexus of U.S. saffron growing.
Threads or Powder?
You won’t ever get super-fresh saffron, but the best saffron threads will be whole, have a bit of moisture to them and bend easily. As for whether to choose threads or powdered saffron, that’s a bit of a personal choice. With spices, it’s always best to select them closest to their natural state, and in saffron’s case that would be threads. It’s somewhat difficult to find saffron in powdered form anyway.
How to Use Saffron
To use saffron threads, they really should be soaked first to release their flavor — the longer the better. At bare minimum, they can soak for 20 minutes, but for best results soak threads for up to 24 hours. Soak them in what, you ask? Whatever cooking liquid you plan on using, whether it is water or broth, or even alcohol. Use three teaspoons of hot cooking liquid per teaspoon of saffron, and let it steep for at least 20 minutes and preferably a few hours.
What Recipes Use Saffron?
Saffron is delicious in seafood dishes, such as the signature saffron dish and national dish of Spain, paella. It’s also excellent in risottos and other rice dishes, stews, tomato sauces, and in baking breads and cakes. Saffron has a metallic, grassy flavor, which makes it unique but also makes sure that a little bit goes a long way. If you’re not sure you’ve added enough saffron, then you probably have. Buy good saffron in small quantities, use a light hand, and enjoy.
Scrumptious Saffron Recipes
Spring Vegetable Paella Recipe
Arroz con Pollo Recipe (Rice with Chicken)
Paella on the Grill Recipe