Saffron - guide to saffron including how it is used, stored and prepared.

Saffron may not be the most popular spice around or the spice that is used most frequently in the kitchen, but it is definitely the most expensive spice on the planet.

Native to the Mediterranean region, primarily Greece and Spain, as well as Southwest Asia, saffron is used in a number of southern European dishes, such as Spain's national dish, the "paella Valenciana" or the French "bouillabaisse", a traditional fish stew from Marseille.

Nevertheless, saffron is probably even more favoured in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Saffron is spicy with a slightly bitter taste and therefore must be used sparingly, which is just as well due to the cost of the spice.

Although saffron has a strong flavour, it is mainly used for its colour, adding a bright yellowy-orange tint to the food. This is where the "paella valenicana" and many Indian rice dishes obtain their typical bright yellow colour.

The saffron plant

Saffron is obtained from the saffron crocus, a flower that has lilac coloured petals. If you look at the crocus close up, you will notice that there are three orange strands in the centre of the flower. These strands or stigmas as they are also known are the un-dried saffron strands that we use in cooking.

The saffron stigmas can only be picked by hand in order to remove them from the plant. It takes 225,000 stigmas to make up 1 lb of saffron spice. As there are only three stigmas to each flower, this means that 75,000 flowers are used to make up this small amount and this is why the spice is so expensive.

The history of saffron

Saffron has been around for thousands of years. Although it is probably native to the Asia Minor area, it was first cultivated in Greece, where it enjoyed an important status around the 8th century BC.

Pictures dating back to these times show that saffron was highly regarded as a potent therapeutic drug and herbal remedy.

Many well-known rulers during those periods were often drawn to saffron due to its bright colour and perfume. Saffron was often used to perfume the royal baths, halls, courts and amphitheatres or they used it as a dye to colour royal garments as well as potions, ointments and lotions.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, saffron's popularity waned all throughout Europe, however it had begun to make its way to India and other parts of the world. It wasn't until the Moors invaded and occupied most of Spain that saffron was reintroduced into Europe.

Today, Spain is one of the main saffron producers in the world and many say that Spanish saffron from La Mancha is of the best quality.

Medicinal uses of saffron

Saffron has long been used for medicinal purposes. As with a lot of other herbs, saffron is also useful in the treatment of stomach and gastrointestinal disorders amongst other ailments. Below is a list of the therapeutic properties of saffron and some of the disorders that saffron has been known to treat.
  • Saffron stimulates digestion and soothes the stomach. It eases wind and lessens intestinal gas.
  • Saffron promotes menstruation and regulates periods.
  • Research shows that several components of saffron may boost the memory and improve learning skills.
  • Saffron is an important antioxidant and helps to protect the body's cells against damage from free radicals.
  • Studies have shown that saffron may be taken in order to combat cancer and slow down tumour growth.
  • It has been used as an antidepressant and a general tonic.
  • Saffron is a mild sedative.
  • It has been used to relieve muscle cramps and spasms.
  • Saffron promotes sweating and perspiration, which is helpful in relieving fevers and high temperatures.
  • Saffron is effective in relieving stomach pains including period pains.
  • Saffron is used in kidney ailments and can also help to reduce the size of an enlarged liver.
  • Saffron can relive colic in children.
  • Chinese herbalists used saffron to treat chest infections and disorders.
  • Can be used to reduce headaches.
  • Saffron is said to be an aphrodisiac and was used by Cleopatra before lovemaking.

Buying and storing saffron

As little amounts of saffron are required in cooking, saffron should be bought in small quantities to preserve the freshness of the spice for longer.

Buy saffron strands as opposed to ground saffron, which is inferior in quality and may be mixed with cheaper spices to lower the cost.

Saffron should be stored in an airtight container and should be kept in a dark and dry place.

Some people wrap saffron in aluminium foil to keep it away from strong light.

Saffron should stay very fresh for around three - six months although it can be kept for much longer but will decrease in quality.

Preparing saffron before cooking

If you are using a specific recipe for cooking with saffron, follow the instructions for its preparation.

There are several basic methods of preparing saffron before using it in a recipe. The most common is to soak a pinch of saffron in a cup of warm water for at least 20 minutes and up to 12 hours. On coming into contact with the water, the saffron will expand and the flavour is released and only then can it be added to the required dish. Other liquids may also be used for example stock, wine or milk.

Another method is to crush the saffron into a powder by using a pestle and mortar and then adding it to the dish or steeping it first in a liquid and then adding it to the other ingredients.

Finally, in dishes such as the "paella valenciana", the saffron must be toasted first and then ground into a powder before adding it to the dish.

Recipe ideas for cooking with saffron

Saffron is used in many different cuisines all over the world. In India it is used with rice and some sweets, whilst in France and Spain it is popular in fish-based dishes. Below are a number of recipe ideas for the use of saffron in cooking.
  • Use saffron in the French "bouillabaisse", a type of fish stew.
  • It is one of the main ingredients of the Spanish paella.
  • In Italian cooking it is used in "risotto a la Milanese".
  • Use saffron to flavour and colour rice.
  • Use in Indian biriyani rice dishes.
  • Add to coffee with cardamom for a Middle Eastern hot drink.
  • Saffron is a good spice to use with fish, such as cod or halibut, giving it excellent colour and flavour.
  • Use for a Scandinavian-style saffron sweet cake.
  • Use to flavour ice cream, as they do in India.
  • Use in all types of curries.
  • Use to make Cornish saffron buns.
  • Add to sauces to give it colour and a spicy flavour.
  • Add saffron to crab or fishcake mixtures.
  • Add to mayonnaise or garlic mayonnaise to give it a different colour.
  • Add to soups for a bright colour.
  • Saffron is also often partnered with chicken.

Saffron Recipes

A number of recipes for using saffron in the kitchen including risotto alla Milanese, Spanish paella and saffron flavoured ice cream.

Risotto alla Milanese

This is a variation of the classic Italian risotto dish, which in fact does not contain any meat or fish. In this recipe we have added chicken meat, however you can experiment and invent your own favourite recipe.

  • 2 lb (905 g) of uncooked chicken meat, thinly sliced
  • 1 pint (570 ml) of chicken stock
  • 1 lb 2 oz (500 g) of Arborio rice
  • 5 fl oz (140 ml) of white wine
  • 4½ oz (125 g) of butter
  • 2 oz (55 g) of grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 tsp of saffron threads
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat half of the butter in a large and deep frying pan.
  2. Add the chopped onion and the chicken and fry over a medium heat until the onion has softened and the chicken has browned (about 10 minutes).
  3. Add the rice and stir thoroughly so that each grain is coated with fat. Cook gently for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so that the rice doesn't stick.
  4. If the stock is not hot already, it needs to be heated in a separate pan until it reaches boiling point. At this point gradually stir the stock into the rice, a little at a time, only adding more stock when the last bit has been absorbed.
  5. Pour in the white wine and add the crumbled saffron. Season with the salt and pepper, stir and reduce the heat.
  6. Once the rice has been cooking gently for 20 minutes in total, you can start checking to see if it is done. The risotto should be creamy and the rice soft but still with a firm bite.
  7. Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese and the remaining butter. Mix well and then serve immediately.

Spanish Paella (Paella Valenciana)

The paella is probably Spain's most famous dish, although it comes from the region of Valencia in the east of Spain. It is packed full of ingredients and goodness fresh from the sea.

  • 24 mussels, cleaned
  • 12 deveined and shelled prawns (raw or cooked)
  • 18 fl oz (510 ml) of chicken or fish stock
  • 12 oz (340 g) of cleaned squid, cut into rings
  • 12 oz (340 g) of skinned monkfish, cut into pieces
  • 10 oz (285 g) of short-grain rice
  • 8 fl oz (225 ml) of tinned chopped tomatoes
  • 7 oz (200 g) of frozen peas
  • 4 fl oz (115 ml) of dry white wine
  • 1 chopped red pepper
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 4 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 crushed clove of garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ tsp of saffron strands
  • ¼ tsp of grated lemon rind
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat the 4 tbsp of olive oil in a paella dish or a very large frying pan.
  2. Add the rice and stir well to coat with the oil. Cook for several minutes over a medium heat until it starts to change colour.
  3. Add the chopped pepper and onion and cook for 4 minutes, stirring frequently.
  4. Add the squid rings and cook for a further 7 - 8 minutes or until the squid begins to colour.
  5. Carefully stir in the stock, white wine, garlic and saffron and bring to the boil.
  6. Then add the tomatoes, bay leaf and lemon rind. Stir well and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover the pan and simmer gently for around 15 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed.
  7. Stir in the peas, monkfish, prawns and the unopened mussels. Cover the pan again and continue cooking until the mussels have opened and the prawns are cooked (pink).
  8. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Saffron Ice Cream

If you are looking for a different flavoured ice cream then why not try this one. The saffron gives the ice cream a bright yellow colour, yet the taste is still deliciously rich and creamy.

  • 7 fl oz (200 ml) of milk
  • 5 fl oz (150 ml) of whipping cream
  • 2 oz (55 g) of sugar
  • 3 egg yolks
  • few drops of vanilla essence
  • 0.25 g of saffron strands
  1. Place the milk and saffron into a medium saucepan and gently bring to the boil, stirring occasionally.
  2. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream and the vanilla essence.
  3. Allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  4. In a separate mixing bowl, beat together the egg yolks and the sugar until light and frothy.
  5. Slowly pour the warm milk into the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly.
  6. Return the mixture to the saucepan and place on a very low heat. Stir continuously until the mixture thickens.
  7. Remove from the heat and leave to cool, stirring frequently.
  8. Transfer to a freezer-proof container or an ice cream maker and place in the freezer.

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