Perfumy saffron comes from the stigmas of the small purple crocus (Crocus sativus) belonging to the iris family. Harvested, dried and packaged entirely by hand, it's the world's most expensive spice.
With each flower providing only three tiny stigmas, it takes about 14,000 stigmas to produce one ounce. Fortunately for cooks, a little saffron goes a long way. The yellow-orange spice has a slightly bitter, honey-like taste that's integral to paella, bouillabaisse, Risotto Milanese and many European baked goods.
Saffron comes from the Arab zafaran, meaning "yellow." The spice first appeared in ancient Babylon and China as early as 2600 BC. Cultivated for thousands of years, it has been used as anesthetic, aphrodisiac, perfume, dye and flavoring for foods and beverages. Cleopatra and the pharaohs used saffron for both sacred and sensual purposes.
Varieties and Buying Tips
Saffron is sold in powdered form and whole threads (the whole stigmas). Powdered saffron loses its flavor more quickly and it may also contain "filler" ingredients that make it less impactful.
While pricey, whole threads of red saffron are the best quality to buy. In the long run, less expensive saffron won't save you money—you'll just need to use more to achieve the same results.
Note: Some markets do not put saffron out on the shelf; ask a clerk if you can't find it.
Stored in an opaque container, tightly sealed and out of direct light, saffron will keep for several years.
- A little pinch goes a long way.
- Store threads in the freezer to make them brittle and easy to crush into recipes.
- To boost color and flavor, mix saffron with one tablespoon of very hot water and let stand for 10 minutes before using.
- Don't use wooden kitchen utensils with saffron—they tend to absorb the color and aroma.
- Blend saffron with thyme, garlic and vinegar to make a tasty seafood marinade.
- Add a pinch of saffron to rice or mashed potatoes.
- Use in risottos, seafood stews and sweet breads.
Try one of our favorite saffron recipes:
Saffron Rice (ala Negri)
Shahi Korma (Lamb in Saffron and Cardamom Cream Sauce)
beans, breads, chicken, corn, cucumbers, fish, pasta, rice, salmon, seafood, soups, stews, turkey