What is saffron?

08 July 2020

Delicately hand harvested, saffron is the world's most expensive spice. Here's why.

What is saffron?

It is a stigma (the female organ) that is plucked from the purple flower known as crocus. Each saffron crocus or plant has three flowers and each flower has three stigmas. With only three per flower, and only 5 acres of crocus plants in the world, this can yield a small amount of up to 750g of saffron stigmas per year – that means it takes upwards of 150,000 flowers for one kilogram of dried saffron.

Not only is this small amount difficult to produce large quantities, saffron is very tricky to harvest. The flowers need to be hand-picked before the sun rises in the morning, before it gets too hot. They also need to be harvested the day they blossoms as they begin to wilt almost immediately. As the crocus only blooms during a short period in autumn, the harvest already needs to happens in in a very short time. The plants are taken inside where the stigmas are patiently hand picked and dried. In the drying process they lose about 80% of their weight. All this work for such a small yield of saffron? It's no wonder why it is said that saffron is worth more than gold.

Where does saffron come from?

There are several types of saffron, each originating from regions where the cuisine favours its inclusion. Iran, India, Greece and Spain are the biggest producers of saffron, with the respective strands bearing somewhat different qualities and levels of sweetness based on their regions.

Indian Saffron

Kashmiri saffron is the sweetest spice in the world. Compared to other saffron, kashmiri strands are thicker and more fragrant. 

Iranian saffron

Iran accounts for more than 90% of the world’s saffron production. Both our saffron strands, A Grade and B Grade, are sourced from Iran.

Greek saffron

In Greek mythology, the mortal Crocus fell in love and had an affair with Smilax, the beautiful nymph. Smilax in turn transformed Crocus into a purple crocus flower — the very one spawning saffron threads. In Greece, the town Krokos is renowned for the production of saffron. It's flavour and aroma is different to other regions: Greek saffron is sweet, floral and earthier than others, while the honey notes are much more intense. Greek saffron also has a higher coloring strength than the minimum international standard for all saffron. In Greece, saffron is used mainly in salads, sauces for potatoes and vegetables, rice, soups, and boiled fish dishes.

Spanish saffron

Otherwise known as Azafran, Spanish saffron is more mellow, though still sweet and floral.

How to use saffron

A little really does go a long way, though. The good news is, that while it's very expensive, you need very little because the flavour of saffron is so concentrated (especially if you go for the A Grade, rather than B Grade). The B-Grade is taken from a different section of the stigma, closer to the base of the flower).

The flavour is woody, honey-like and earthy and it adds a beautiful red, golden colour tone to the dish. Whilst you can just put the stigmas straight into a dish, if you take just a pinch and pour hot water over the top (a tablespoon or two), the water really draws out the deeper flavour, aroma and golden colour. This saffron-infused water can be added to dough for bread, cakes and cookies. Let it steep for a minimum of 10 minutes.

However, longer is better: you'll see the effects of the soaking if you let it steep for an hour before use. If you have the time, overnight is ideal. The stigmas will be very pale once all the flavour has penetrated the water. If you're using powdered saffron rather than whole, the saffron must first be diluted in warm water before being added to a dish. Be aware, if you use too much, it can taste quite soapy so be careful how much you use. If you have any of the saffron-infused water left over, just put it into ice cube trays and freeze for use for next time.

How to store saffron

Like many spices, make sure you store your saffron in a cool, dark dry place. Never store in the fridge or freezer.

How do you use saffron?

In cooking, used as a spice, saffron goes well in pilaf, risottos and paellas, wherever there may be rice. It's also fantastic in pastas, with lentils or you'll also find it in lemon sauces used for chicken, vegetable or fish soups. As already mentioned, a small amount goes a long way. In a risotto or paella, up to three strands is enough to have its flavour prominent in the dish. You can also use saffron to add a unique flavour to tea, chamomile and herbal infusions.

Saffron is especially good when used in cooking seafood dishes such as bouillabaisse and paella. It is also used in risotto and other rice dishes. Two of our favourite recipes are made special with a pinch of saffron – Moroccan Apricot Chicken Traybake and Spanish Seafood Paella.

View our exquisite range of herbs and spices online.

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