Saffron’s delicate, vibrant red threads are cultivated from the stigmas of the saffron crocus flower, each removed carefully by hand. The sheer rarity of the spice itself (each crocus flower only has three stigmas, so it takes over 100,000 blossoms to yield one pound of saffron), combined with its painstaking harvesting process, make saffron the most expensive spice in the world. (Fortunately, only a pinch is needed in most recipes!)
Once steeped in liquid, the saffron threads emit a vibrant golden hue that is considered the epitome of beauty in India and is also the official color for the robes worn by Buddhist monks. It is this gorgeous color and also its distinct pungent, bitter-honey taste that culinaries so highly value in the spice. Spain’s paella is one of the most prominent dishes that showcases saffron, but it is also used in other parts of Europe to flavor stews, rice dishes, and desserts. It is used widely in Persian cooking, and in India, saffron is used to season rice, meats, sweet custards, and yogurt drinks or desserts.
Because it is so valuable, saffron is best purchased as whole threads and then crushed at home, as sometimes the pre-ground varieties may contain impurities. Purchasing whole also ensures a fresher flavor. Look for bright red or red-orange threads, the deeper the color, the better.
threads and ground
Saffron has been known to be:
- an antioxidant
- effective in treating digestive and urinary tract disorders, coughs, and asthma
Although there is no real comparable alternative to saffron, to substitute saffron’s color, use turmeric, marigold blossoms, or annatto seeds; for its flavor, safflower may be used.