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Saffron Storyboard (c)2011

The History of Saffron

In Artichoke to Za’atar, Lucy Malouf writes that the word for saffron in most languages is strikingly similar, all coming from the Arabic words sahafarn, meaning “thread”, and Za’faran, meaning “yellow”. Yellow thread, there you go. According to Herbs and Spices, saffron is native to the Mediterranean and western Asia. Saffron was first used as a dye and later as a flavoring for food. The Phoenecians were famously addicted to saffron.

Harvesting Saffron

If you want to really appreciate the harvesting of saffron (without leaving the U.S.) you must read Lidia Bastianich’s account of the saffron harvests in the region of Abruzzo, Italy. In Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy, she writes, “for me, saffron has a magical effect on the palate, creating the illusion of distant, mystic places.” Lidia gives an account of the saffron harvest she witnessed and with each detail her passion for this spice is more apparent. The crocus flowers in autumn, and the flowers are picked carefully by hand. To this day the harvesting is done by families in rural areas who care deeply about continuing tradition. The work is labor intense and there is no easy way about it, as the flowers bloom for a short period of time and then quickly wilt in the hot sun. After collecting the flowers the stigmas are carefully removed and dried. The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion states that each flower has 3 stigmas and it takes 14,000 stigmas to make an ounce of saffron.

Buying Saffron

It’s best to purchase saffron threads rather than ground saffron powder, whose authenticity is more difficult to determine. Also, powdered saffron looses its flavor more quickly than the threads. Saffron threads stay fresh 3 years stored airtight in a cool, dark place. Because saffron is so valuable (and the most expensive spice in the world), it’s important to buy from a reputable source like your local spice shop or a good online dealer. Saffron on the shelves of big supermarkets may be old and stale due to less turnover. Spain is the main producer of saffron, but it’s also cultivated in Italy, India, Greece, and Iran. Herbs & Spices, the cook’s reference, details the differences between high quality saffron and the lesser grades.

Best quality saffron has a deep red color:

Saffron purchased from Italy should be of the DOP zone Zafferano d’Aquila, a protected farmer area with standards determined by Italian law.

Coupe– Spanish and Kashmiri (India) saffron

Sargol– Iranian saffron

Thick yellow threads from the style of the saffron crocus are found in the next lower grade of saffron:

Mancha– Spanish and Kashmiri saffron

Poshal or kayam– Iranian saffron (also known as Persian)

Lower quality saffron exhibit a brownish color and stubby, somewhat shabby looking threads

 Cooking with Saffron

Balance is crucial when cooking with saffron. What makes saffron spectacular can also lead to disaster. Use too much saffron in a dish and instead of earthy warmth you’ll end up with bitter medicine. How to avoid this mistake? Find a saffron you like and stick with it. Different regions produce saffron of different strengths and flavor. Practice cooking with saffron- adding a small pinch and adjusting by adding more later if needed. You’ve got to get to know each other. Many recipes aren’t very specific in how much saffron they require for this very reason.

Saffron can be used in cooking two ways. Some recipes call for saffron threads to be infused in a liquid such as milk or stock before combining with other ingredients. Using saffron in an infusion adds a lot of the characteristic yellow color to a dish with a more mellow flavor. Sometimes the recipe calls for dry threads to be ground and added directly. It’s important to toast the threads very gently before grinding and adding them directly to a dish, as saffron’s flavor is activated by heat. In Artichoke to Za’atar, Lucy Malouf shares a general rule for cooking with saffron: adding it at the beginning of cooking yields maximum color, adding at the end of cooking results in maximum flavor. She suggests adding some saffron early in cooking, while holding back a bit to toss in right before serving the dish.

Flavor Pairing

  • Spices-red pepper flakes, cayenne, cumin, pimentón, cinnamon, nutmeg,
  • Herbs- thyme, lavender, parsley
  • Rice- Basmati, Risotto style: Arborio, Carnaroli, Bomba (Spanish paella)
  • Pasta- especially pasta with grooves that can hold sauce
  • Vegetables- carrots, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, fennel, spinach, cauliflower
  • Seafood- mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp, lobster, fish, squid
  • Poultry- Chicken, chicken stock, pheasant
  • Lamb
  • Rabbit
  • Chickpeas
  • Mushrooms
  • Garlic, onion
  • Olive oil
  • Rose water
  • Fresh ginger
  • Citrus- lemon,
  • Eggs- scramble, souffle
  • Soft cheese and yogurt
What flavors do you like with saffron? Click here to comment.