Saffron - Crocus Sativus - Spanish Saffron

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Saffron is the stigma of the crocus flower, which originally came from Asia Minor. Saffron is called "zafran" in Spanish. Today almost three-quarters of the world’s production of saffron is grown in Spain, specifically in the region of Castilla-La Mancha. Spanish saffron is prized for its high quality, and commands twice the price of saffron produced in Iran.

saffron threads

saffron threads

Saffron has always being considered very valuable. In fact, at one point it was even used as currency. Saffron forms part of the culinary culture of different regions in the world:

  • In India saffron is an important ingredient in many recipes of rice, sweets, and ice-creams.

  • In Saudi Arabia, a real Arabic coffee should have saffron and cardamom.
  • In the North of Italy, saffron is essential in the preparation of its famous Risotto.

  • In Sweden it is a traditional to bake saffron bread on the day of St. Lucile.

  • In Spain saffron is an indispensable ingredient in such famous dishes as Paella.

Saffron, the yellow-orange stigmas from a small purple saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), commonly known as Rose of Saffron, is the world's most expensive spice. That's because each flower provides only three (3) red stigmas. One (1) ounce of saffron = approximately 14,000 of these tiny saffron threads. At a price of $2,000 to $10,000 a pound, saffron is considered the most expensive food on earth, way more than truffles, caviar, and real balsamic vinegar. Why is saffron so expensive - its because of the labor needed to produce saffron - it is so labor intensive!

Each flower, which blooms for one week of the year, produces about three stamens, which must be picked by hand. The best saffron is harvested seasonally and carefully dried in the sun or over a low fire. Saffron is best when fresh and loses its potency over time. The tiny red threads of saffron must be handpicked from the center of the crocus flower. They leave behind the yellow stamens which have no taste. This spice comes either powdered or in threads (the whole stigmas). Less-expensive saffron powder is often made from poor quality saffron or old saffron.
 


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History of Saffron
:

Saffron is the stigma of the crocus flower, which originally came from Asia Minor before the birth of Christ, where it has been cultivated since ancient times. The Moors brought with them the spice az-zafaran during their invasion of Spain over a thousand years ago.

Ancient Romans used to perfume their baths with saffron. Court ladies of Henry VIII's reign tinted their hair with saffron until the monarch forbade it; he feared a saffron shortage that might reach his own table. In the 1400', German dealers who were caught adulterating saffron were burned at the stake. The Moors brought saffron or “az-zafaran” as they called it, to Spain in the VIII or IX century. Arabs used saffron in medicine for its anaesthetic properties. It was the Arabs who introduced the cultivation of saffron in Spain in the X century. Evidence of different kinds assure that saffron was an irreplaceable ingredient in the hispanic-arabic cooking of that age.

Sources:

La Tienda, The Best of Spain, Artisan Saffron.

Spice Hunting: What's The Deal With Saffron, by Max Falkowitz, Serious Eats.

The Saffron

 

Shopping for Saffron:

To purchase Saffron for your cooking needs, click on the underlined.

Pure saffron is made up of tiny, bright-red threads. The redder the saffron, the higher the quality. The tips of the threads should be a slightly lighter orange-red color. This will show that it is not cheap saffron that has been tinted red to look expensive.

Spanish saffron is divided into grades. Names to look for are coupe, superior, La Mancha, or Rio. Coupe is the top of the line and it has the least flavorless yellow stem and the highest amount of crocin, one of the key essential oils in saffron.

Beware of bunk saffron. Saffron will always be expensive. If you see a packet of a couple ounces of saffron for just a few dollars, just put it back. Real saffron is VERY expensive and you only need a tiny bit when cooking. Don't fall for cheap saffron, as you will always get what you pay for!


Preparing Saffron for use in cooking:

Since heat releases saffron's flavor essence, it needs to be steeped in hot water, broth, or even alcohol before being added to food. Pre-soaking also allows the color to disperse throughout the food.

Preferred Method - For every teaspoon of saffron, add 3 teaspoons of liquid; using a spoon make sure that the saffron threads get properly soaked (do not crush the threads). Let the saffron soak for a minimum of two hours. The mixture can be left soaking for as long as twelve hours, but two hours will give you the proper results. The leaves will expand to 1 1/2 times their dry size.

Quick Method - If you are in a hurry or have forgotten to soak the saffron, add 5 teaspoons of liquid for every teaspoon of saffron; let soak for 20 minutes. Using the back of a spoon or in your ceramic mortar, mash the threads so that a thick paste is formed. You can then add the paste to the dish when required.

Toasting Method - Carefully and slowly toast threads in a heavy skillet over low heat (watch carefully and do not allow to burn - burned saffron threads are irretrievable and unusable).  Then grind threads into a powder and use as directed in the recipe.


Cooking with Saffron:

The rule is that a "little saffron" will go a long way. When determining how much saffron to use in cooking, remember that the saffron flavor will be stronger the second day. In general, just use a pinch in soups and stews that serve 4 to 6 people.

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. Try adding some to your next beef stew or tomato-based sauce. To make a wonderful marinade for fish, add saffron threads, garlic, and thyme to vinegar. Saffron is also used in bread and cake cooking. Use your imagination and be creative when using saffron in your cooking.


Saffron Cooking Tips
:

  • If your recipe includes liquid (water, broth, or wine), use a little of it and pour over the saffron.
  • Turmeric may be substituted for the color properties, not not the flavor.
  • Do not use wooden utensils when mixing saffron. Wood utensils tend to absorb saffron easily. Since saffron is expensive, you don't want to waste it.
     

Powdered Saffron:

Powdered saffron loses it flavor more rapidly and can easily be adulterated with less-expensive powders like turmeric. Buying cheaper saffron won't save money in the long run, since more will be needed for the same flavor impact. I personally don't recommend that you purchase powdered saffron.


Storing Saffron - Powdered Saffron vs. Saffron Threads:

Saffron is very sensitive to light and moisture. Store it in a container away from sunlight. If stored properly, it will last for years.

Saffron absorbs other flavors and odors very easily. If you choose to transfer the saffron to a new container, make sure that the container is very clean and odor-free before using.

 



Linda's Favorite Recipes Using Saffron:
To purchase Saffron for your cooking needs, click on the underlined.

Seafood Paella
Spanish Mixed Paella
(Paella de Mar y Montaņa)
Spanish paella is a spectacular dish with a rich history. It originates from a region of Spain called Valencia, which is in Eastern Spain. Today, paella can be found in most seaport cities of Spain. Every Spanish cook claims to make the best paella in the country.

Arroz Con Pollo
Arroz Con Pollo
Arroz Con Pollo literally means Rice with Chicken (a delicious one pot Spanish and Mexican dish). This popular chicken-and-rice dish is actually a paella without shellfish or meat.

steamed clams with melted butter
Steamed Clams
What could be easier to make and more delicious than steamed clams with butter? I can't think of anything else!


Fried Eggplant with Molasses Recipe - Berenjena Frita con Miel de Cana
This Fried Eggplant with Molasses Tapa recipe is from Andalucia (southern Spain). The combination of savory and sweet in this tapa recipe is sensational! Molasses in Spanish is called melaza, or sometimes miel (which is honey). This recipe traditionally uses Miel de Cana, or literally "sugar cane honey," and is very typical of the regions of Granada and Malaga, where this recipe originated.


Saffron Risotto
Saffron Risotto or Risotto alla Milanese is a traditional Italian risotto with saffron in it. Risotto is normally a primo or first course dish, served on its own before the main course.

Mini Meatballs in Saffron
Mini Meatballs in Saffron Sauce
Everyone loves these meatballs and will beg you to make more "next" time.

 


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