Cooking with Saffron

How-To, Ingredient
on July 21, 2011

Composed of the dried stigmas of the crocus sativus, saffron (SAF-ruhn) holds the distinction of being the most expensive spice in the world. It takes more than 70,000 flowers to yield a pound of saffron, and each stigma must be painstakingly picked by hand. Quality saffron costs about $100 a pound, but since a single gram can flavor two or three memorable meals, you might think that $5 vial is an affordable extravagance.

The pop singer Donovan wasn’t the first to be “mad about saffron.” Originally used as a medicine and a dye, saffron was well known in ancient Persia. Sumerians used it in their magic potions. Cleopatra took saffron baths to heighten sexual pleasure. Alexander the Great used saffron infusions to treat his battle wounds.

By 960 A.D., Arabs had begun cultivating saffron in Spain, and its popularity eventually spread throughout Europe. During the plagues of the Middle Ages, saffron-based medications were in high demand—a war was fought over the stuff in the 14th century, and in Germany, adulteration of the spice became punishable by death.

Saffron is integral to some of the world’s most cherished dishes: the paellas of Spain, the bouillabaisse of Provence, the saffron cakes of Essex, the risottos of Milan.

Buy saffron in threads; powdered saffron quickly loses flavor. If your recipe calls for powdered saffron, crush threads immediately before use. Buy in small quantities, and store in a cool dark place. Beware of imitations: turmeric and safflower are sometimes sold as saffron.

—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.

Found in: How-To, Ingredient