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….
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.
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.
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….
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.
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…
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….
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…