A native to Southwest Asia, saffron has had many uses such as seasonings, fragrances, perfumes, dye and medicine.
In the kitchen, saffron is most commonly used in soups, stews, as well as seafood dishes such as bouillabaisse and paella. It is also a welcome addition to risotto and other rice-based dishes. Because this spice has long held the title of “most expensive spice by weight’, it may not be found commonly in every kitchens’ spice rack.
Saffron is pronounced /ˈsæfrən/ or /ˈsæfrɒn, scientific name Crocus sativus. Hear the common saffron pronunciation:
What is Saffron?
Saffron is part of the iris family and has been used in a variety of capacities. Throughout its history, saffron has been utilized for medicinal purposes for ailments such as coughs, colds, insomnia, scarlet fever, heart issues, and digestive issues such as sour stomach, bloat, and gassiness.
Saffron was used in textiles for dying fabrics in its signature, brilliant yellow hue. One single grain could be used to color 10 gallons of water; any more than that and the yellow would become a glorious orange which Buddhist priests would wear in India.
Well-known for its high-price, saffron is grown and harvested much in the same way as it first was centuries ago. The task of removing the saffron threads is done by hand and it takes nearly 5,000 crocus flowers to create one ounce of saffron; it is easy to see how time and physical labor intensive this cultivation is.
What Does Saffron Taste Like?
Only a pinch is needed due to Saffron’s pungent, spicy, and bitter flavor which some describe as metallic honey with floral, musky, with hints of sea-like aromas.
Health Benefits of Saffron
Acne: Saffron contains antifungal properties which helps fight acne, blemishes, and blackheads.
Active Components: Saffron is loaded with carotenoids such as lycopene, alpha and beta carotene, and zeaxanthin all of which are healthful, body-beneficial antioxidants. These powerhouse active antioxidant components prevent harmful diseases.
Antidepressant: Saffron has been shown to be as effective as common antidepressants fluoxetine and imipramine in reducing mild to moderate symptoms of adult depression. The combination of saffron’s serotonergic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuro-endocrine and neuroprotective properties had similar efficacy as antidepressant medications. Check out this study for further information and be sure to consult your doctor before starting any sort of treatment for depression.
Blood Cell Production: Saffron is iron-rich and iron is a large component in forming hemoglobin and red blood cell production.
Blood Pressure: Saffron is full of good for you minerals such as potassium, copper, calcium, manganese, iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. Some of these can help control blood pressure.
Cell Formation and Repair: Saffron has potassium which helps the body with cell formation and repair.
Digestion: Saffron provides a gas relief as well as assists with acidity-related issues. Saffron’s carminative properties also helps reduce flatulence altogether and alleviate stomach cramps.
Insomnia: Saffron boasts mild sedative properties which help calm and relax the body and its nerves.
Mental Wellness: Saffron is used in depression treatment as a mood enhancer, and stress reduction. It has additionally been known to combat Alzheimer’s disease and induce a calming effect to oppose insomnia (see above).
Respiratory Wellness: Saffron’s expectorant properties naturally lend itself to treat asthma, coughs such as whooping and more common versions.
Sexual Wellness: Saffron’s calming effect can increase libido. Saffron has been shown to be particularly effective with sexual disorders such as erectile dysfunction in men who take antidepressants. It also elevates men’s fertility levels and helps stimulate sexual desires in both men and women.
Weight Loss: Saffron oil has been shown to control appetite, and effectively elevates serotonin (feel good chemical) levels in our bodies.
How Can I Use Saffron in Cooking?
Saffron is a spice with versatility that can add depth and dimension to both sweet and savory dishes. It creates a distinct flavor, strong aroma, and adds to beautiful presentation.
Saffron can be cooked with in the thread, liquid, or ground form depending the recipe at hand. It can even be used as a garnishment for a beautiful presentation; in this instance, use the threads. Conversely, saffron blended into dishes, powdered form is best. The below cooking tips help prepare the spice to its maximum beneficial state. Enjoy!
How to Prepare Saffron
Preparing Powder Saffron
Preparing your own saffron into powder form be done by grinding saffron threads with a mortar and pestle. Quick tip: If the grinding is difficult which may be due to moisture content, adding a pinch of sugar and continue grinding.
Preparing Liquid Saffron
Liquid saffron can be made by adding 3 to 5 teaspoons of boiling water to powdered saffron and allowing it to mix together for 5 to 10 minutes. Store in an airtight glass jar which can be kept for a few weeks and used as needed. For alternate liquid saffron recipes, try using milk, wine, or vinegar.
How to Store Saffron
- Saffron should be stored in an airtight, glass container and kept in a cool, dry, and dark place. Exposing to sunlight or moisture can affect its potency. Ideal storing temperature is below 68F with less than 40% humidity.
- When properly stored, saffron can last several years. It is best to use within two years as it will lose more of its flavor with age.
- Moroccan Chicken with Saffron and Preserved Lemon
- Lamb Tagine
- Bessy's Zesty Grilled Garlic-Herb Chicken
- Paella,Soup, and Bouillabaisse
- Rice Dishes
Where Can I Buy Saffron?
- Buying saffron at your local grocer may not be the best option here as it might not be the freshest saffron at your fingertips. An option that may work better is purchasing from a specialty grocery store. Quick tip: Be cautious about inadvertently purchasing “Meadow Saffron” which can be quite toxic and should be strictly avoided.
- If you want to buy it online make sure to purchase from a reputable online retailer such as Penzey’s.
- Due to saffron’s hefty price tag, there have been cases of adulteration or saffron dilutions that have been combined with other less expensive spices.
How to Select Saffron
Because saffron is the most expensive spice, proper selection is of the utmost importance. Saffron can be found year round in grocery stores or specialty stores (our recommendation for fresher saffron). Typically saffron can be found in three forms: saffron threads, saffron tips or saffron powder.
First and foremost, ensure that you are purchasing your saffron from a reputable source. Second consideration should be country of origin. Top choice is Iranian saffron but can be difficult to find due to trade embargos. The secondary choice is Spanish saffron which is still high quality, readily available, and tightly regulated.
Top choice of Spanish saffron is “coupe” which superior to all other grades of saffron. Lower grade yet still quality choices are superior, La Mancha, or Rio.
Saffron threads should be a deep red in color with orange tips without color variation. The more red the color, the better quality of saffron at hand. Quick tip: if the tips are not orange, you may be dealing with a lesser quality saffron since the tips might have been dyed to a deeper red shade. Saffron threads should be brittle and hard to the touch.
Purchasing saffron threads is preferable due to saffron powder being more difficult to discern the quality; additionally, saffron powder is more likely of the two to be diluted with another spice to save on costs. To check saffron powders’ quality, be sure to purchase from a reputable source. Then be sure to examine its aroma which saffron’s smell should be strong, fresh, and sweet. If it is musty, do not purchase.
When possible, we recommend purchasing in its thread form due to a longer shelf life and also of being able to easily detect higher quality saffron. Saffron is an expensive price and like most things in life, you definitely get what you pay for. If you see saffron available for a less expensive price, you are likely seeing saffron that has been diluted with another less expensive spice, adulterated, or is another spice altogether.
Substitutes for Saffron
Fun Saffron Facts
- According to Greek mythology, Crocos, a handsome mortal, fell deeply in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. His love was not returned and instead she turned him into the beautiful, purple crocus flower.
- Ancient warriors were known to use saffron extract to treat battle wounds.
- In the days of Imperial Rome, saffron was used to create beautifully fragranced baths and public halls.
- Because of the various grades of saffron, international standards (ISO) have been developed which divide saffron into 4 different categories depending on its color, taste, and aroma.
- In the Middle Ages, saffron dilution or adulteration was considered a serious crime and often punishable by death.
Saffron in Other Languages
- French: safran
- German: safron
- Italian: zafferano
- Spanish: azafran
- Indian: kesa, kesram, khesa, zafran
- Arabic: za-faran
- Mandarin: fan huang hua
- Hindi: zaaffran/kesar
- Japanese: safuran
- Portuguese: acafrao
- Russian: shafran