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Saffron 

Saffron, the worlds most expensive spice, is the stigma plucked from the purple-flowered crocus. Each has only three stigmas, and a five acre plot yields between 500 and 750g of this hand picked spice. “A-grade” has a deeper red colour and is more concentrated. “B-grade” is still high quality but a different section of the stigma, closer to the base of the flower.

Saffron has a pungent, earthy, bittersweet flavour and a unique, acrid, haylike aroma. The saffron crocus is sterile and is propagated by dividing the corms (small underground bulbs). Because it’s so concentrated, a few threads can flavour an entire dish. Spain and Iran together account for more than 80 percent of world production of about 300 tons annually. Saffron is cultivated on a much smaller scale in Italy, Crete, Turkey, and Kashmir.

Saffron is essential for Mediterranean fish and seafood dishes such as bouillabaisse, paella Valenciana, and risotto alla Milanese. It flavours northern Indian biriyanis, Persian rice pilaf, and some Indian milk-based sweets. Cornish saffron cake is a traditional spiced yeast-raised cake replete with dried fruit; a similar bread is made in Sweden. Note that in large quantities (far more than is used in cooking), saffron is toxic.

Unlike most spices, saffron is soluble in liquid. To extract the most colour and flavour, soak it in warm water, milk, broth, or white wine until the liquid turns bright yellowish orange, then add the liquid to a dish. Saffron loses its aroma with prolonged cooking, though the threads may be briefly toasted in a dry pan to enhance the aroma.

Other Names
Açafrão (Portuguese); azafrán (Spanish); fan hong hua (Chinese); kesar (Hindi); safran (French, German, Hebrew, Turkish); safrani (Greek); safuran (Japanese); shafran (Russian); za’afaran (Farsi); zafferano (Italian); zafraan (Arabic).
Season
Saffron flowers in autumn, but the spice is always used dry. When purchasing 1-ounce tins, check the harvest date, which should be of the current year, or at the latest, the past year.
Purchase and Avoid
Look for saffron in Indian, Iranian, and Spanish markets. Saffron should be bought whole from a reputable spice dealer as powdered saffron can be easily adulterated. Avoid cheap “saffron,” which may come from safflower, turmeric, or marigold. The best saffron, that of Kashmir and Iran, includes only the deeply coloured red-orange stigmas; less expensive saffron is bulked up with flavourless yellow stamens.
Storage
Saffron may be kept in the freezer for 1 to 2 years with little loss of flavour. Otherwise, purchase saffron in small quantities and store in a cool, dark place.
Culinary Uses
  • Soak saffron in a little milk and use along with cardamom and cinnamon to flavour Indian-style rice pudding.

  • Soak saffron in water or broth and add to risotto alla Milanese.

  • Soak saffron in milk and add to dough for brioche, challah, or fresh pasta.

Food Affinities

Category: Spices and Herbs

Sub Category: Spice

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