Culinary Arts

What Is Saffron? Learn About the Culinary Uses and Benefits of Saffron

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 5 min read

Considered one of the most prized and covetable plants on the planet, saffron is the 24-karat gold of spices. With a history spanning back millenniums, saffron has been used by kings, pharaohs, and chefs alike for medicinal, aesthetic, and culinary purposes.


What Is Saffron?

Known as the most expensive spice in the world, saffron is a spice derived from the flower stigmas of the saffron crocus plant (aka Crocus sativus), a member of the iris family. Native to the Asia Minor region, most saffron (85 percent!) is now produced in Iran and used for culinary purposes as well as for medicine, dyes, and perfumes. Culinarily, saffron is prized for both its aromatic flavor and beautiful golden color.

The History of Saffron

Saffron is one of the oldest and most prized spices on the planet, and has been considered a valuable commodity for thousands of years. First harvested in central Asia over 3,500 years ago, saffron has been mentioned in ancient texts dating back to 1500 BCE, including the Bible and ancient Chinese medical books.

With a name derived from the Arabic word for yellow (zaffran), saffron has long been coveted for its gold and red threads. During its early years, this precious spice was traded throughout Eurasia and desired by kings, Roman emperors, and pharaohs alike as a powerful aphrodisiac and medicinal plant. It is said that Cleopatra herself bathed in a saffron milk bath before meeting with suitors.

What Determines the Cost of Saffron?

The high price tag of the saffron is due to the intensive labor that goes into obtaining the saffron spice. Saffron flowers are generally harvested by hand, and a single pound of saffron can require up to 75,000 blossoms to produce the highest quality product.

The saffron plant is also a sterile triploid, meaning saffron crocuses cannot self-reproduce or grow in the wild, and thus, require a cloning process in order to continue to grow. During the saffron harvest, the saffron crop is cultivated and the crocus flower and saffron stigma are collected from the bulbs, also known as saffron corms.

How to Shop for Saffron

This distinct spice is available in thread-like whole stigmas and ground saffron powder, and can be purchased online and at most grocery stores. However, high-quality saffron may be tucked away in a secure area to avoid theft. While pre-ground saffron is the most affordable option, some ground options contain imitation saffron and fillers to bring down the cost.

In addition to Iranian saffron, other popular varieties of the spice are Spanish saffron, which is cultivated in the La Mancha region of Spain and commonly used in dishes like paella; Kashmiri saffron, which is grown in India; and American saffron, which is primarily grown in Pennsylvania in the United States.

What Does Saffron Taste Like?

This expensive spice has a pungent, earthy flavor that can have subtle notes of fruit, honey, or flowers. The unique and somewhat indescribable flavor of saffron is due to the chemicals safranal and picrocrocin, which give the plant its distinct taste and bright yellow tone.

How to Cook With Saffron

Hailing from the Middle East, saffron is still most commonly used in Mediterranean, Asian, and European cuisine. However, this worldly spice can also be found in a range of dishes around the globe, from Spanish paella and other Greek and Italian rice dishes to rich Indian recipes and Swedish saffron buns.

Saffron is best put to use in dishes that have a significant amount of liquid, like bouillabaisse and risotto, as the simmering process is necessary to unleash the full flavor. First, grind saffron threads into a powder, using a mortar and pestle to break down the flowers, then add the spice early to the hot water or cooking liquid in order to bring out the full extent of the color and aromatics contained in the costly herb. A small amount of the valuable spice goes a long way, so there’s no need to grind more than a pinch of the threads.

8 Saffron Recipe Ideas

  1. Bouillabaisse: A traditional French seafood stew with mussels, fish, and clams cooked in a broth of fish stock, olive oil, tomatoes, onion, garlic, saffron threads, and spices.
  2. Saffron Chicken: Chicken breast cooked in a rich saffron sauce of olive oil, chicken stock, lemon juice, saffron, and onion.
  3. Spanish Paella: A Spanish rice dish prepared with chorizo, shrimp, mussels, chopped vegetables, broth, saffron threads, and spices.
  4. Cardamom Saffron Sponge Cake: A light, aromatic cake flavored with vanilla, ground cardamom, and saffron.
  5. Tachin (Persian Saffron Rice): A classic baked Persian rice dish with a crispy golden outside. Made with basmati rice, oil, saffron threads, egg yolks, and plain yogurt.
  6. Swedish Saffron Buns: Sweet buns flavored with saffron and laced with raisins, traditionally eaten at Christmas time.
  7. Chicken and Corn Soup with Saffron: A rich soup made with roasted chicken, corn kernels, egg noodles, saffron threads, chicken stock, and olive oil.
  8. Milanese Risotto: A creamy, long grain rice dish made with chicken broth, dry white wine, butter, saffron threads, minced onion, and Parmesan cheese.

How to Substitute Saffron in Recipes

A suitable substitution for saffron is turmeric, which can recreate the spice’s bold golden tone but will lack the unique flavor of saffron that can’t be reproduced by any other spice.

How to Store Saffron

Saffron should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, and will maintain its freshness for up to six months. To extend its shelf life as much as possible, store saffron in a container that lets in no light, such as a tin container or glass jar wrapped in foil, as light exposure can deplete the flavor at a faster rate.

Saffron Health Benefits

Saffron has been used as a tool in natural medicine for thousands of years. Packed with a range of antioxidants like crocetin, safranal, and crocin, saffron may help protect the body from harmful free radicals that cause a number of ailments and diseases. Saffron can be consumed directly or via saffron extract, tea, or a saffron supplement.

In addition to the many bodily health benefits of saffron, saffron is also good for the mind. Both crocin and crocetin contain brain-boosting properties that protect the health of brain cells and improve the cognition of adults.

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