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Spice: Saffron (and Safflower)

Crocus - Courtesy of Wikipedia

Crocus – Courtesy of Wikipedia

The phrase ‘worth it’s weight in gold’ could very easily apply to saffron as it is, by a large margin, the world’s most expensive spice. It consists of the stamens of a particular variety of crocus (pictured above), which is cultivated primarily in Spain,  Iran and India, but also in other places, including England, as well. Each flower produces only three tiny stamens (the three crimson colored ‘threads’ protruding from the center of the bloom), each of which must be collected by hand. This, coupled with the fact that it takes some 50,000 to 75,000 flowers to yield a pound of the spice, accounts for the cost. Thankfully, though a very little goes a long way and just a tiny pinch will lend a dish a beautifully vivid golden-yellow hue and a taste that is all but indescribable…. 

Saffron 2

Here you can see two packages of saffron: one a powdered variety that is typically sold in little foil-lined packages, and the second (pictured in the plastic box in the middle), which consists of about a gram of the whole ‘threads’ or stamens.

The third product, on the right, is not saffron but, rather, the petals of a common flowering plant known as safflower, and the reason I have included it here in this post is that safflower is frequently, not to mention fraudulently, passed off as saffron to such an extent that is it is also commonly referred to as ‘bastard saffron’.

Actually, safflower has its own very pleasant taste and ability to color food attractively (being used both as a textile dye, as is saffron, and as a food-colorant for margarine), but its qualities are still very unlike the real article. Accordingly, you should really familiarize yourself with the differences so as to be sure exactly what it is you are purchasing when you encounter something held out to be ‘saffron’. Still, you may want to include this product in your spice collection as it has an interesting flavor in its own right and I often use it as an adjunct (it not a substitute) in dishes where saffron is required.

Saffron 3

Here you can see powdered saffron, and the quantity in the dish ( a mere 20th of a teaspoon or so) constitutes the whole package in which it came. Generally, I fond that a single package is sufficient for one dish, with the given amount adequately  coloring and flavoring 4 to 6 cups of stock, and any rice dishes created therefrom.

Saffron 4

This picture shows saffron ‘threads’ (left) and safflower (on the right) and, as you can see the saffron is definitely more delicate and subtly colored than the much coarser and garishly red safflower. You can also differentiate between the two by the aroma, taste, and coloring power as we will see below….

Saffron 5

Here you can see actual ‘threads’ of saffron. The aroma, which is chiefly the same as the taste is very strong, but not easy to delineate. Wikipedia has described the taste as being sweet, ‘reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes’ but I cannot agree. Basically, saffron does have some honey notes but the dominant flavor but the main component is unique to the spice and, to my mind, has a quality not unlike a certain clear, stiff, cellophane-like wrapping that is often used for toys. That description will sound unappetizing, I imagine, but the taste I quality I speak of is not unpleasant and very aromatic.

Saffron 6

Safflower, in contrast to saffron, has an aroma that is very rich, but more suggestive of a sweet, chocolaty, tobacco. Another difference is that, unlike saffron, the taste is much weaker than the smell and diminishes when cooked. While saffron can flavor and color a dish in small quantities, larger amounts of safflower are needed for color and even more for taste. However, that being said, adding a tablespoon or two of safflower to a dish that includes saffron, can improve the appearance immeasurably if not actually adding to the flavor significantly.

By the way… here you can see the visual difference between actual saffron threads and the coarser appearance of safflower petals. Not long before writing this post, I saw bags of ostensible ‘saffron’ being offered for sale in a specialty food store in Ottawa’s Byward Market, ( a Middle-Eastern or Italian food-store, I forget which),  but these bags, about a half-ounce or so, were  on sale at a ridiculously cheap price (compared to saffron). Make sure you know the difference before you buy…

Saffron 7

This picture shows a package of the powdered variety dissolved cold in a quarter cup of water. Hot water is generally preferred for culinary purposes, but here you can see the ‘coloring’ quality of saffron… Generally, I find that a single package of the  powdered variety, and a ¼ to ½ of one gram of the threads is enough for any usual recipe for 2 to  persons. The nice ‘yellow’ color you see is darker here than normally and, in a few cups of stock, or a rice dish using the same, will be nicely yellow….

Culinary Uses

Saffron is used most especially  in soups (notably Bouillabaisse), as well as many Indian Khormas.  It is also a frequent colorant and flavoring agent in  countless rice dishes( particularly Indian  Biryanis) and also the western equivalents of Paella and Risotto a la Milanese. I have used saffron in one version of Paella but I also plan to use it in a couple of other dishes fairly soon…



19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting and informative post.

    December 24, 2012
  2. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    December 26, 2012
  3. Fascinating to know and such a useful comparison! Admittedly, it has been a while since I cooked with saffron . . . which just makes me want to run home and compare what I have with this post!

    But am visiting my parents for the New Year right now. Bookmarking to check later!

    December 29, 2012
    • Hope you have a great New Year celebration… with lots of good food, of course !

      December 29, 2012
  4. Lori #

    Thank you for your descriptive instruction on these two spices. I just recently purchased some “bastard” saffron and now know that I will not achieve the flavor I am looking for in my chicken saffron soup. I doubt my boss, in the restaurant I cook, will approve the cost of the saffron so I hope that the safflower will do.

    February 2, 2014
    • Safflower actually does have its own interesting flavor but, you are right, it will not be the same. Actually, if you are not cooking for huge crowds, the cost of saffron is actually offset considerably by its strength… a little goes a LONG way. By the way, recently, in Ottawa, I saw two stores selling safflower as saffron. I rather suspect that the owners weren’t being fraudulent but rather purchased it as saffron without knowing the difference.

      February 3, 2014
  5. Frank Locante #

    Very nice post on saffron. I manage a spice store in Pittsburgh, Pa. and use saffron quite a bit. As well as Spanish food, another nice use is in soft dinner rolls and a little used in chicken broth is a nice touch. I prefer Spanish saffron…I find Indian or Iranian does have a slightly metallic taste (and it costs a lot more). Another common yellow coloring agent is annotto seed (achiote) in Mexican cooking. Great in Arroz con Pollo)

    October 18, 2014
    • Oh yes… I probably should have given annatto a mention here. I have used it in Arroz con Pollo but also a few other places too. The idea of saffron in rolls is interesting!

      October 18, 2014
  6. Thank you for your detailed descriptions. My mother was at a Mediterranean spice store the other day and purchased Safflower labeled as Saffron. I had to let her down gently as I explained to her she actually purchased Safflower, because she was so happy she got such a great deal on it’s price! I always wondered exactly what the difference was (besides the quality and taste). My absolute favorite spice is Saffron (Spanish) and I won’t make my homemade chicken soup without it.

    October 21, 2014
  7. mehrdad #

    hello dear freind
    im mehrdad from producer of one of the best quality organic saffron in the world.(all red.dry.very good color because its thick.clean)
    i can send u on unbeliavable prices even in small amounts.for more information please contact me.
    with respect

    February 27, 2015
  8. How would you rate Spanish saffron? I know little to nothing about the spice only just learning of its many medicinal benefits and want to make sure that what i purchase will provide those benefits Your post has been extremely helpful. thank you very much. Larry

    February 28, 2015
    • I have never been disappointed with any Spanish Saffron that I can recall. I’m afraid I can’t really comment on medicinal value… In truth, I tend to be leery of such claims unless supported by credible clinical trial reports. Thank you very much for your kind comment 🙂

      February 28, 2015
  9. I am quite familiar with how saffron is used, but it seems (from reading the article) that you didn’t actually get up and attempt to cook using safflower. Or, if you did, you don’t describe that process, which is what I think a lot of people — if in fact safflower is so much cheaper than saffron — might want to know about, and there seems to be very little information about cooking successfully with safflower on the Web.

    August 23, 2015
  10. I purchased a 1/4 oz package of Safflower today for $1. Compare that to McCormicks Saffron at Walmart for $!7.92! Well glad to read this article as it is educational and I am not disappointed as Safflower will suffice for the limited times I would of used Saffron. Thanks for this wonderful information.

    October 14, 2015
  11. Blanche #

    Dr Oz is said to have recommended safflower for weight loss. How true is the safflower for this purpose.

    January 16, 2016
    • I have never heard such claims. I would be skeptical…

      January 16, 2016

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  1. Paella Valenciana | Sybaritica
  2. Lobster Risotto with Saffron and Truffle Oil. | Sybaritica

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