What is saffron?

From dry saffron stigmas, it takes 75,000 flowers or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to make one pound which explains why it is the most expensive spice in the world.

More saffron trivia

According to Greek myth, the handsome mortal Crocos fell in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. But Smilex refused his services, and was transformed into a beautiful purple saffron flower.

The origin of saffron goes back to the Mediterranean region, and it is now imported mainly from Spain, where Muslims introduced it in the eighth century, along with rice and sugar.

The Valencia coupé (coupé meaning to "cut off" the yellow parts of the stigmas) saffron is generally considered the best, although this reputation is now rivaled by Kashmir. Saffron is also grown in India, Turkey, China and Iran. The name is derived from the Arabic word zaafaran, which means "yellow". The French cooking term safrané means "stained with saffron". Its coloring properties have been prized as much as its unique flavour. Its color in India is considered the epitome of beauty and is the official color of Buddhist robes.

Saffron was used to perfume public baths and halls in imperial Rome. Pliny wrote that saffron was the most counterfeited commodity, which has been true throughout history. Low-grade saffron was urine-treated to give it color, though it was often counterfeited with dried calendula or marigold.

The Romans first brought saffron to England, though it was lost to them in the Dark Ages. Allegedly, in the 14th century, a pilgrim to the Holy Land smuggled a single bulb of saffron in a hollow staff from which all English saffron is supposedly descended. It is grown in large quantities in Essex, especially in a town called Saffron Walden, whose emblem includes three saffron crocuses. “They make the English language merry,” wrote Francis Bacon.

Description of spices

Saffron is the three stigmas of saffron. They are delicate and thread-like, measuring 2.5–4 cm (1–1.5 in) each. It is bright orange-red in color, and in high-quality saffron this is uniform. Saffron threads bearing white streaks or light spots are inferior, and when light spots appear in their powdered form, they indicate adulteration.
Bouquet: Strongly scented, with the scent of honey
Flavor: The bitter taste of honey is tart
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How to buy saffron

Most specialty food stores carry saffron, though if it sits on shelves too long it may lose its flavour, so look for a bright color.

Preparation and storage

Because of its cost, intense flavor, and strong dyeing 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 into a fine powder in a mortar and pestle. However, it is easier to steep saffron in hot water - a pinch in the cup will create the desired flavor and color. Good saffron should expand in contact with the water and a cup should be sufficient for 0.5 kg (1 lb) of rice. Saffron powder is added directly to the ingredients required for the dish, although we recommend not buying saffron powder, as it is often adulterated. Store in a cool dry place away from light.

Saffron cooking

Saffron appears in Moroccan, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. Its most common function is to color the rice yellow, as in ceremonial Indian bellos and risotto Milanese, where its delicate flavor makes it the most popular Italian rice dish. It pairs well with fish and seafood, and is notorious as a main ingredient of Spanish paella as well as bouillabaisse. In England, saffron is probably best known for its use in Cornish saffron cakes where it is paired with dried fruit in a yeast cake.

Saffron substitute

Use turmeric for color and not flavor or safflower can also be used to give a similar color, but the taste is definitely inferior. Marigolds bloom, again for color, not flavour. Annatto seeds can also be used for coloring. Steep 1 teaspoon of annatto seeds in 1/4 cup boiling water for 30 minutes, and discard the seeds. Reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup.

Health benefits of saffron

Saffron contains plant-derived compounds known for their antioxidant, disease-preventing and health-promoting properties. Saffron strands contain volatile essential oils, but the most important is the saffron that gives saffron its distinctive straw-like flavour. Other saffron oils include: cineole, phenthenol, pinene, borneol, geraniol, limonene, b-cymene, linalool, terpene 4-oil.

It contains several non-volatile active ingredients, including α-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which gives stigmas their distinctive golden yellow color. It also contains other carotenoids including zeaxanthin, lycopene, and alpha and beta carotenoids. These are important antioxidants that help protect the body from oxidative stress, cancers, and infections and act as an immune regulator. The active ingredients have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines such as antiseptic, antidepressant, antioxidant, digestive system, antispasmodic.

Saffron is a good source of minerals such as copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cells and body fluids that help 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 necessary for the production of red blood cells.

Description of the plant and its cultivation

Ornamental crocuses bloom fall and do well in warm climates. It grows to 15 cm (6 in) long with long, thin leaves. The blue flowers contain aViolet has prominent, precious orange stigmas.

Other names

Alicante Saffron, Autumn Crocus, Crocus, Gatinais Saffron, Hay Saffron Karcom, Stima Croci, Zaffer

French: safran
Iran: saffron

German: saffron
Italian: Zafferano
Spanish: Azafran
Al-Hindi: Kisah, Kasram, Kheesa, Zafran


The scientific name

Crocus sativus Fam: Iridaceae