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Saffron has a pungent, very characteristic flavor, if slightly bitter, and it is highly aromatic. It is used not only as flavoring, but yellow coloring as well.

Saffron is rare and precious. It is said to be more valuable than its weight in gold. It is has been know since pre-historic times and it is not more widely used because cultivation and production is extremely hard.


Saffron flowers come out for a brief period. Each flower only has tree stigmas. The stifmas must be picked by hand at dawn, before the sun heat is felt. The flowers are discarded and the stigmas dried. Drying makes the flavor more intense but also the loss of liquid is loss of weight - up to un 80% - for the stigmas and, as a result more than 100,000 flowers are needed to produce 2 lb of saffron.

How to identify Saffron

Saffron is the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus flower. The plant grows to a mere 6 inches ( 15 cm) and it has long, thin leaves, producing violet or white lily-like flowers with bright orange stigmas for two weeks in autumn .

Saffron is probably native to Greece and Asia Minor. Although it was well known to the Romans who even used the flowers to cover roads, creating a golden carpet, for emperors and princes alike, and legend has that the Phoenicians were the ones to brig it to Spain, the country associated with its production, was introduced by the Arabs in Europe.

Saffron was cultivated for a short time in England, about the 16-17th centuries, and from there ir was introduced to Pennsylvania, USA, where it is still in production. Saffron is cultivated in the Mediterranean, particularly Spain, Turkey, Iran, India and China.

Saffron is found in strands and ground. Because of the large potential proffit, more than one supplier falls into the temptation to adulterate this spice. This is done more easily in powdered form, so try to buy strands. Saffron strands should be bright orange to red color, not yellow, without any ligher patches nor a speck of white. Pure saffron is very expensive, so be warned: if it is cheap, it is not saffron.

How to use and store Saffron

Used in Western cuisine in chicken and rice dishes, like paella from Valencia, Spain. Saffron also flavors fish and seafood dishes, such as French bouillabaisse or fish stews from the south of Spain. Saffron colors soups and stews. Middle Eastern cuisine adds saffron to rice pilafs, meat dishes and sweet meats. Widely used in Northern India in festive pilaus and finely spiced dishes.

Saffon adds a nice sweet, pungent if slightly bitter flavor, an a wonderful yellow-orange color to food.

How to Grow Saffron

Saffron is easy to grow in sunny, well drained soil. It does not need large plots to thrive and stands dry and hot quite well. Saffron plants can last up to 15 years, but they are very susceptible to pests and disease, so the practice is to renovate them every four years. The plant is propagated from the corm. Safforn cannot be found in the wild any longer.

Cooking with Saffron

Saffron and rice are a perfect combination and so you will see it in rice dishes from many countries, from the Spanish paella to Italian risottos and spicy pilaus from India or the Middle East. Saffron goes well with fish and seafood, as it this red mullet with tarragon and saffron, and it is an essential ingredient in bouillabaise, the French fish stew. Saffron also flavors sweet dishes, such as rice puddings in India and cakes and buns in England.

Add powdered saffron directly to the ingredients. Infuse saffron threads in warm water or stock for about 15 minutes to develop color, flavor and aroma, drain to remove the threads and add the liquid to your recipe. If added directly, saffron threads should be lightly toasted and crushed, then mixed with a little water, before incorporating them to the recipe.

Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way, and only it is necessary to add a pinch - 10 to 15 strands - to get a wonderful flavor and color.

If you don't have any saffron, your options to substitute 1 pinch saffron are:

  • 1 tsp crushed safflower florets for a bright yellow orange color but a much milder aroma and flavor
  • 1/2 tsp powdered yellow food coloring, designed as saffon substitute, same bright yellow color and no flavor at all
  • 2 drops yellow food coloring + 1drop red food coloring mixed with water or the liquid used in the recipe.
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric + 1/2 tsp sweet paprika for a similar yellow orange color, but different taste
  • 1 tsp annato seeds steeped in hot water or oil, drain and discard the seeds, for the yellow color.

Saffron flavors as anything paella Valenciana, but you can still produce a creditable paella with no saffron using one of the substitutes.

Cooking Suggestions

To prepare saffron potato mash, add a pinch of saffron to the water and cook the potatoes in the colored liquid.

To make saffron cakes, steep 8 strands into 4-6 Tbs boiling water, drain to remove the strands. Substitute part of the liquid in the recipe with the colored liquid.

Color your ice cream adding 8 strands saffron per 3-4 cups liquid when you are cooking either the syrup for the sorbet or custard base and leave to cool with the saffron in.

Add a pinch of saffron to a fish stew while simmering.

crocus sativus (iridaceae) - saffron - French: safran - German: safran - Italian: zafferano - Spanish: azafrán.