(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 4, 2008.)
What is saffron?
Saffron comes from the bright red stigmas (female part of the flower) of the saffron crocus which flowers in the fall. Each flower produces three stigmas, also called threads or strands, used for culinary purposes. The male part of the saffron crocus, the stamens, has NO culinary value. There are many lower grades on the market that combine the stamen part of the flower with the stigmas for added weight.
Look inside almost any flower, and you will see threadlike filaments. These are stigma - but only in the saffron crocus are these stigma worth thousands of dollars per pound.
1/2 gram of saffron threads
Saffron must be hand picked because it is so delicate. It takes over 80,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron, and there are 450-500 stigmas in one gram. 1 gram equals 2 teaspoons whole, 1 teaspoon crumbled or 1⁄2 teaspoon powdered stigmas. (There are 453 grams in one pound.)
Saffron is usually sold by the gram or by the quarter-ounce. One-quarter ounce contains about 1 cup of saffron threads and can cost $70 for Kashmir saffron and $50 for Spanish saffron in 2007 prices. The largest saffron producer in the world is Iran and it is widely grown in Spain and India.
Saffron grows from the saffron crocus corms which send up flowers in the fall. A couple dozen corms should be enough to get you started for a few special saffron dishes. Each year thereafter the corms will increase and you will have an increase in saffron.
The USDA hardiness map shows zones 6-8 in the South and zones 6-9 in the West as best for growing saffron. Colder zones may still grow saffron but the corms will need to be lifted and stored over winter. They should be lifted after frost but before the ground freezes and stored covered with dry sawdust, sand or peat moss. Storage should be dry and cool (40-50ºF), like a basement.
Replant in spring after all danger of frost has passed. Plant the corms about 4 inches deep in full sun and well-drained, moderately rich soil with lots of organic matter. Do not water until new growth appears in the fall. The leaves appear after the flowers have bloomed and died and often remain for 1 to 3 months. It is a good idea to mark the planting area if you do not need to lift the corms yearly.
Corms should be dug and divided every few years to prevent overcrowding, which decreases blooms. Dividing is best done when foliage is faded in late Fall.
Cutting and Storing Saffron
The stigmas in this lovely purple flower are best cut from fresh flowers early in the day after the dew has dried. I use fine scissors to carefully cut the stigmas and drop them into an envelope before taking them inside. Then I carefully cut the stigmas apart prior to drying. If you leave the stigmas attached to each other, moisture can be trapped inside the stigma. I airdry mine in the paper envelope until they are brittle, then I place them in a small air-tight jar in a cool, dark place.
Saffron threads will keep several years if properly stored. Powdered saffron loses flavor quickly. Commercial powdered saffron, although usually more expensive than threads, is often cut with turmeric and loses flavor quickly.
Cooking with Saffron
Saffron is unique in the spice world, with an aroma and taste not found elsewhere in the spice world. It colors foods a bright yellow (think of the robe color of Buddhist monks). With its uniqueness, saffron adds its own special character to many dishes.
Saffron is widely used in the cooking of Spanish, French and Italian dishes like risotto, bouillabaisse, paella, arroz con Pollo, sauces, shellfish and seafood soups. An Indian curry wouldn’t be the same without saffron. Mediterranean cuisines use it extensively and it is found far away in Cornish pasties. In Arabia saffron-flavored tea is so popular it’s available in tea bags in the supermarket.
It seems ironic that the world's most expensive spice is a common ingredient used by the Amish, who are known for their frugality
Saffron threads are water-soluble. To use saffron threads steep them in a little hot liquid for 20 minutes. Add the liquid AND threads to the dish and they will continue to increase flavor and aroma as the dish cooks.
Start with very simple recipes featuring saffron so that you can begin to know what saffron tastes like. Paella and bouillabaisse, both very traditional saffron dishes, are much more complicated flavor-wise and more expensive to prepare than saffron bread, saffron broth or a saffron yogurt or cream sauce.
Saffron combines well with lemon, tomatoes, garlic, thyme and ginger. However, its subtle earthy flavor can be masked by strong flavorings such as chili peppers.
Saffron remains underutilized and underappreciated by the majority of Americans. After a period of neglect, awareness of saffron’s beneficial properties is once again growing, with consumers now returning to natural ingredients.
Imagine taking a spice that costs $50 an ounce and using it to dye, say, a sweater? THAT Probably wouldn't happen these days but saffron has been used as a natural yellow dye.
Note: If using saffron to dye fabric, you must use a mordant to “fix” the dye. (Mordants include tannic acid, alum, chrome alum, sodium chloride, and certain salts of aluminum, chromium, copper, iron, iodine, potassium, sodium, and tin.” )
Saffron Bread in a Bread Machine
Great toasted with butter and honey!
1 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar
3 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 package yeast
3/4 cup raisins
Mix saffron with milk. Add all ingredients, except raisins, to the bread maker pan in the order listed (or as directed in your bread maker instructions).
Set bread maker to the regular setting and start. Add the raisins when the beeper sounds to add additional ingredients.
Thanks to debi_z and dayli for their pictures in PlantFiles!