Daring Spice: Proper Ways to Use Saffron

Brooke Newberry
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Native to the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, saffron is the most expensive spice on the planet, by weight.  Produced from the stigmas (which we know as the saffron “threads”) of a bright purple flower, it takes about 80,000 of the blossoms to yield just 1 pound of saffron – all harvested via handpicking.

Saffron is aromatic inebriation.  This is its selling point. Musky, floral, earthy, and exotic – saffron is one of those addicting sensory experiences.  What’s really fascinating about this spice is that chefs and home cooks are able to manipulate and control its potency based on its objective. When teamed up with other spices, saffron becomes restrained and won’t nudge out other flavors.  On the other hand, saffron may be most charming in its straightforward expression – as master of a dish: traditionally, brothy French bouillabaisses, starchy Spanish paellas, and Italian risottos are found richened and dominated by the power spice. Saffron obtains a provocative complexity that makes a dish seem like it took longer to create than it actually did.  The unusual spice is best explored in lighter meat, fish, and starches.  Try our seafood-friendly recipe for saffron mayonnaise

Cooking with Saffron:

The spice needs to be soaked before being added to food. Soaking the threads also allows its vibrant golden color to diffuse throughout the food. Crush the threads with a mortar and pestle, and for every 1-teaspoon of crushed saffron, use 3 teaspoons of liquid (water, broth, or alcohol – depending on your recipe) for immersing.  Let the saffron soak here for a minimum of two hours.  Strain out the threads and use the “saffron liquid” for the recipe at hand.

Besides being spirituous in traditional dishes, saffron’s sweetness lends itself to desserts: think rich and floral ice creams, sweet breads, and spice cookies.  Another incredible saffron experience lies in the sultry, golden French sweet wine, Sauternes.  This Bordeaux born wine is uniquely evocative of the spice.  Next time you taste Sauternes, keep saffron in the back of your mind – to blow your mind.

Tip: Don’t use wooden utensils when mixing saffron because they to absorb saffron easily, and it’d be a waste of the threads. 

Shopping for Saffron:

Pure saffron is made up of tiny, deep-red threads. The more intense the color, the higher the quality. The tips of the threads should be a slightly lighter orange-red color. This orange-red contrast is also an indicator of quality – if the thread is completely red with no variation then it probably isn’t saffron and was most likely dyed.

Saffron is sold in very small quantities, either in cheap powder form or as the more expensive threads. Always choose the threads.  The threads are more likely to be the real thing and will pack the best and most authentic flavor. If you see a packet of a couple ounces for just a few dollars, put it back – it’s not saffron.  Prices vary greatly but are generally more than $5 a pack.  Keep leftover threads in an airtight container in the freezer or the strands will lose their flavor.

Note: Try looking for it at local spice markets or specialty grocery stores.

Saffron Varieties:

The most intense varieties tend to be Iranian, which are a darker red with deeper musky qualities.  Italian varieties are powerful as well. 

The most common type, and the easiest saffron to find, is Spanish saffron.  Spanish saffron is divided into grades.  “Coupe” threads are the highest grade available, but the others are absolutely of decent quality.  Choose saffron based on the spice’s purpose in the dish.  If the saffron is being used in a rub or in accumulation with other spices, a lower grade would still be an acceptable choice – as long as it’s not the powder stuff.  If you’re making a traditional saffron-doused dish, spend more on the potent threads because it’ll make a big difference.

DIY Saffron Powder:

Heat the threads in the microwave on high for 30 seconds, then grind up in a mortar and pestle.  Store in an airtight container away from sunlight.

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