How much do you know about saffron? You probably know that it is very expensive — maybe its price has deterred you because you weren’t sure what to do with it. Grown in Kashmir (Northern India), Iran, and Spain, these brightly colored threads may be small, but they have a history of being used as fabric dye, in perfume, and in cooking. At one point, it was even more expensive than gold! Let’s learn a little more about what saffron is and how we can use it in the kitchen.
What is Saffron?
Saffron, which looks like small, red threads, is a highly prized spice. You might know saffron by the moniker “the world’s most expensive spice.” It’s true — wholesale prices can cost $1,500 per pound and up. But why is it so pricey? Harvesting saffron threads for sale is an extremely labor intensive process. The threads are the stigma of a flower called the saffron crocus and each crocus contains only three threads. Each delicate thread must be removed by hand and by carefully roasted in order to dry it out. 1/24 of an ounce of saffron can contain as many 500 threads and it can take up to 70,000 crocuses to produce just one pound of saffron — so it’s no wonder why this spice is so expensive.
Saffron may be expensive, but its flavor justifies the high price tag for those who can afford it. It has been described as having a subtle, aromatic, but complex flavor that is difficult to describe if you have never tried it. It can be floral, but not overpowering. Earthy, but not pungent. Smooth, yet distinct. It takes just a small pinch of saffron to bring forth its unmistakeable flavor in any dish, yet it is never overpowering.
When buying saffron, look for threads that are uniform in length, unbroken, that are vibrantly colored. Do not be tempted to buy any bargain-priced saffron — these are often old saffron threads that are mixed with other parts of the flower or marigold stigmas. The flavor will not be the same.
Although no one is going to eat an entire ounce of saffron in one sitting, studies have shown that saffron is a good source of manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin C, iron, and potassium. It also contains antioxidants such as crocin, a carotenoid which gives saffron its bright color. In traditional medicines, saffron has been used to treat depression, asthma, and cancer.
For centuries, saffron has been a cherished spice in Moorish, Asian, and Mediterranean cuisines. It is probably best known as the ingredient that gives Spanish paella its vibrant, golden color. It also gives color to Indian pulaos, rice dishes such as risottos, and it has been used to flavor fish dishes and baked goods.
For risotto, try this seasonal Saffron Risotto With Butternut Squash. If butternut squash isn’t seasonally available where you are, try using summer squash instead. Saffron is also a key ingredient in this Saffron Risotto With Roasted Vegetables and this Saffron Arancini, also known as Italian fried risotto balls.
For paella, try this Caribbean Paella, which has a bright, orange color thanks to just a 1/2 teaspoon saffron. Try adding a small amount of saffron to this Campfire Paella Primavera, this Vegetable Paella Risotto, this Chickpea, Artichoke, and Millet Paella, or these Portable Paella Pucks.
For other Indian rice dishes try this Asparagus and Saffron Biryani. Or, add a few threads to this Easy Pressure Cooker Biryani, this Mint Biryani With Garden Peas, Cauliflower Rice Biryani, and this Vegetable Dum Biryani.
Don’t just stick to the traditional, though! Saffron can spice up any grain-based dish, like in this Iranian Jeweled Basmati Rice Pilaf or this Saffron Barley With Black-Eyed Peas. It can also add color to your grain-based veggie burgers and patties, like in these Rainbow Vegetable Saffron Millet Croquettes. And in this Saffron, Corn, and Bell Pepper Soup, saffron adds subtle flavor and a touch of color.
Saffron isn’t just for savory foods! It is also a very popular addition to desserts, particularly baked goods and confectionary sweets in Turkey, Persia, India, Europe, and in Arab countries.
In Sweden and other European countries, saffron is used to make Lyxiga Lussebullar, a golden sweet bread that is traditionally made during Advent. Try adding saffron to other sweet breads, like these Turmeric Coconut Cacao Cinnamon Rolls, these Sourdough Cinnamon Buns With Dates, this Greek Cinnamon Orange Cornbread, and these Chocolate Cinnamon Rolls With Cream Cheese Icing.
Saffron is what gives this Peach Jalebi, best described as the Indian version of funnel cake with a crunchy candied coating, its bright orange color. It is also used to give the frosting in this Sugar-Free Dark Chocolate and Blackberry Cake its delicate yellow color as well as the color in this Saffron Custard Tart With Figs and Blackberries.
Saffron can be a great way to make unique summery desserts. This Saffron Ice Cream With Pistachios features a creamy, cashew-based ice cream mixed with saffron, cranberries, and pistachios. It’s a key ingredient in this Kulfi, an Indian frozen dessert. Here, the ice cream is made from frozen mango blended with non-dairy milk, cardamom, saffron, and rose water.
Because quality saffron is so expensive, it can be tough to come by. If you are lucky enough to live close to a spice shop, you might find it there. Your other best bet is to try grocery stores that carry specialty ingredients, such as Whole Foods, or to buy online.
This Afghan Mehr Saffron is one of the highest grades you can get. Each .18-ounce bottle contains all red saffron threads and can be bought for about $33. If you are looking for less expensive options, try these Redsaff Afghan Saffron Threads, which cost about $13 for .05 ounces or this Kiva Health Food La Mancha Spanish Saffron, which is $21 for a 3-gram bottle.
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