What is Saffron?

The world's most expensive spice, the thread like stigmas of the Crocus plant are painstakingly removed and dried to create red strands of saffron bursting with a unique sweet flavour and potent colour. Each crocus only produces three saffron threads which means to produce a kilo of saffron, over 400,000 flowers need to be processed.

Saffron and crocuses

What does Saffron taste like?

Saffron has a complex flavour profile with bitterness, sweetness and earthy undertones. There’s a honey like character to it’s aroma and flavour which gives way to slight floral bitterness and satisfying hay like notes. 

What is saffron used for?

Saffron has been used in the cuisines of Middle Eastern cultures for centuries. Not only does saffron impart it’s characteristic complex flavour to a dish, each strand is packed with pigment which is released as it cooks. This pigment can give a dish a delightful yellow colour. The best way to extract the colour and ensure it passes onto the dish is to crumble and soak the saffron threads in water or sherry, this also helps distribute the flavour more evenly throughout the dish.

Saffron's unique flavour has meant it’s found its way into cuisines across the world in both sweet and savoury recipes. Saffron is an essential flavouring in the Spanish classic Paella. Baked goods have also made good use of saffron, the colouring being used on special occasions to give pastries and buns a flash of yellow. Swedish lussekatter are traditional winter Saffron buns made to celebrate St. Lucia’s day. Saffron is used in Indian cooking to bring a bright yellow flavour to biryanis and other rice dishes, although it is often substituted for turmeric which is much cheaper and more readily available.

Saffron recipes

Here's a selection of some simple, and more complex recipes to try out with saffron:

Names and origins

Saffron is harvested from the stigmas of the flower Crocus sativus, a small purple flower which has been cultivated for millennia. It’s believed to have originated in Iran, which still today produces around 90% of the world's Saffron. The word saffron derives from Arabic, likely borrowed from Middle Iranian.  

Due to it’s high price, upwards of £5,000 per kilogramme, unscrupulous producers have long adulterated their product to make it go further. Powdered saffron is often blended with turmeric, which provides similar staining properties. Everything from beetroot, dyed silk and plastic has been found in supposed containers of saffron, so its best to be mindful and do your research when shopping for it. 

Saffron fields- Iran- image by Safar Daneshvar


Other uses

As mentioned before, the potent pigment of saffron has made it a historically important dye for fabrics as well as food. It’s price relegated its use to the clothing of nobles and aristocrats. To this day research into an effective, and cheaper, alternative for saffron dye continues.

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