Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world! Learn how to use these beautiful red threads in your cooking and how to spot the fake stuff!
What is Saffron?
Saffron is the reddish-orange dried stigmas of the purple crocus flower.
It has a complex scent and flavour that can be difficult to describe... The dried stigmas have a deep woody smell on their own, but they add a sweet earthy scent and flavour when added to food. Too much saffron can make a dish bitter though, so you generally only need to add a pinch to whatever you're cooking. Which is a good thing, because this spice is very expensive!
According to Padma Laskmi's book, The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs, the price of saffron is "close to half of that of gold by weight." The reason it costs so much is because of two things:
- Each crocus flower only has 3 stigmas
- Each stigmas has to be removed by hand
So as you can imagine, it takes thousands of stigmas to make just a small amount of saffron, and they all of to be painstakingly harvested by hand and then set out to dry either over charcoal or under the sun.
With that in mind, it's no wonder that good quality threads can cost about $10 for just 1 gram! This is one spice you don't want to waste.
How to Spot Fake Saffron:
Speaking about quality - it's important to know how to spot fake saffron.
In the image above I've shown 3 different products that were all labeled as saffron. The first one and the last one are both good quality - even though they were harvested in different regions. You can get good quality threads that are cultivated in Indian, Spain, and Iran (although people will dispute that one is superior to another). However, take a look at that pile in the middle.
Although the packaging is labeled as saffron, it is actually something completely different. These stigmas are from the safflower plant, and they are often used to imitate saffron in various ways. Although the stigmas smell a little bit like saffron, they don't have the complex flavour of the actual spice. They also don't colour food in the same way.
Safflower stigmas are sometimes ground up and mixed with ground saffron to "stretch" the product. This is called adulterating saffron, and it's one of the reasons why you shouldn't buy pre-ground saffron. The other reason is that ground saffron doesn't retain the same flavour as whole saffron threads, so really you should just avoid that stuff.
When you're buying whole saffron threads, there are a few key things to look for:
- Colour - good quality saffron has a dark red or reddish orange colour.
- Shape - you should be able to see individual threads. The package of safflower stigmas that I have has many large clumps that are still attached together.
- Price - there is no such thing as "cheap" saffron, so if the price seems too good to be true... it probably is!
What Can I Make with Saffron?
When you think of saffron, you might immediately think of it as an Indian spice. This isn't inaccurate, since the spice has been cultivated in India for centuries. However, you might not know that saffron is also a popular spice in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine.
When saffron is added to warm liquids, it releases its pretty yellow colour. You might recognize this colour in the classic Spanish rice dish called paella. It is also commonly used in Italian risotta alla Milanese, French bouillabaisse, Persian polow rice dishes and Yellow Chartreuse (a French liquer).
You can add saffron threads to dishes whole, or grind them into a powder. Soak the threads in warm water or another liquid to soften, then add it with the liquid to whatever you're cooking. You can try adding it to savoury foods like rice or chicken, or to desserts like custards or cakes.
Where to Buy It:
You can find small packages at most groceries, including Bulk Barn (it's not sold in bulk though). You can also find saffron at specialty Indian, Caribbean, Iranian, Spanish and Mediterranean stores. If you prefer to shop online, you can buy it from TheSpiceTrader.ca, SpiceTrekkers.com, or SilkRoadSpices.ca. I haven't shopped from these online stores before, but I know other Canadian bloggers who recommend them.
Some of the best saffron is said to come from La Mancha and Kashmir, but you find good quality options from various regions in India, Spain, and Iran.
To keep this spice fresh, store in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to 6 months.
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