What is Saffron? Everything You Need to Know About the World's Most Popular Spice
Saffron is the world's most expensive spice and is highly sought after for its unique flavor, color, and aroma. It comes from a crocus flower and is used in a wide range of recipes across the globe. This spice has been used for thousands of years and has had a long history in both culinary and medicinal uses.
What is saffron?
Saffron is the dried stigma (stigma papaveris) of the saffron crocus, Crocus sativus. The saffron crocus is native to the Mediterranean region, but it’s also grown in parts of Western Asia, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa.
The saffron crocus is a member of the iris family, and the flower's stigmas are what people harvest to make saffron. Saffron is a pale yellowish-orange spice, and it has a delicate flavor reminiscent of almonds or honey.
Saffron also has a sweet, floral aroma that’s often described as “heady.”
Saffron: A Brief History
The history of saffron dates back thousands of years. The spice is believed to have been first cultivated in ancient Persia, but its exact origins remain a mystery.
The Romans used saffron extensively in their cooking and introduced it to other parts of Europe during the Roman Empire. It was also used as a medicinal herb as well as an aphrodisiac.
Saffron remained popular throughout medieval Europe until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. At that time, large amounts of Greek saffron began arriving on the continent, which led to English merchants importing large quantities of Turkish saffron into England.
Although this trade lasted for centuries, it eventually died out due to competition from Spanish and Italian varieties that were easier to grow and produced higher yields per acre than those from Greece and Turkey.
What Does Saffron Taste Like?
When you taste saffron, you’re tasting the flavor of the crocus flower. Bitter orange peel and cloves are the main ingredients in saffron’s flavor profile, with a note of honey and almonds. Saffron’s flavor is often described as “heady” because it’s often used as a flavoring agent in dishes like moussaka, stews, and paella.
Saffron is often paired with ingredients that also have a sweet taste, like honey and sugar – this is because the saffron’s bitter taste balances out the sweetness of the other ingredients. People often think saffron tastes like popcorn, and while it can give dishes a yellow color, it doesn’t have any popcorn flavor.
Why Is Saffron So Expensive?
Saffron’s price has increased because there is not enough of the spice to go around. Saffron is usually harvested just once a year, and when the crocus flower blooms, the stigmas are picked and used immediately.
Crocus flowers only bloom for a few weeks every autumn, and when the flowers bloom, the stigmas are picked and put into storage immediately. This means that when saffron prices go up, it’s not because saffron is in high demand — it’s because saffron is in short supply.
There are many ways to grow saffron, but the only ones that can produce a high amount of expensive saffron are Spain, Iran, and India.
To create saffron, the stigmas from each flower need to be carefully separated from the flower’s yellow pollen. This method of harvesting is difficult and time-intensive, and only about 20,000 people worldwide can do it.
Saffron and Its Research Benefits
Saffron is used in research to study brain development, epilepsy, liver disease, and more. For example, saffron is used to make drugs that treat liver diseases and epilepsy because it can help to stop seizures.
These saffron drugs act by blocking a receptor that’s involved in causing seizures. But when this receptor is blocked, brain cells don’t receive the “message” that they need to send to cause a seizure.
In another study, saffron helps make food more digestible for people with impaired liver function. Saffron helps block the liver’s ability to store fat by slowing the rate at which the liver releases fat into the bloodstream.
Types of Saffron
There are many different types of saffron, distinguished by the crocus flower from which they're harvested.
- White Saffron is harvested in Iran and has a slightly off-white color.
- Yellow Saffron is harvested in India and has a yellow color.
- Madras Saffron has a mild flavor and is harvested in Southern India.
- Kabul Saffron has a mild flavor and is harvested in Afghanistan.
- Spanish Saffron has a delicate flavor and is harvested in Spain.
- Crocus Saffron has a delicate flavor and is harvested in Israel.
- Turkish Saffron has a delicate flavor and is harvested in Turkey.
- Greek Saffron is harvested in Greece and has a delicate flavor.
How do you use saffron?
Saffron is integral to Spanish paella, French bouillabaisse, Italian risotto Milanese, and many other dishes. It also adds to bread and pastries, like Indian kheer or Persian rice pudding. Saffron has a unique flavor that lends itself to many different dishes.
It’s often used in rice dishes such as paella or risotto because it provides both flavor and color to these dishes. It’s also often used with seafood such as shrimp or fish because it pairs well with those ingredients.
Saffron can be used as an ingredient in cakes and other desserts, as well as in sauces like béchamel or hollandaise sauce.
How to Store Saffron
Saffron is a spice that should be kept in a cool, dry place away from light. Saffron can last up to a year when properly stored, but eating it as soon as possible is recommended.
Saffron is highly delicate and should be used before it’s gone. Saffron can be added to smoothies, baked goods, omelets, and casseroles or used to flavor drinks, like the Spanish Saffron Mojito.
Alternatively, saffron can be ground and used in cooking or blended with other spices and used as a seasoning. Saffron can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to a year.
Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices, and for a good reason. Saffron, which comes from the saffron flower, has a delicate flavor and aroma that gives dishes like paella and tagines their signature yellow hue.
It’s also used as a dye in perfumes and aromatherapy products and to manufacture drugs like anti-epileptic drugs, antidepressants, and appetite suppressants. Saffron has been used in Eurasia for thousands of years and is steeped in cultural significance.
Its popularity continued to grow during the Middle Ages when it was used to replace saffron’s notorious expense. Moreover, it was used for dyeing fabrics and scenting dishes like stews, soups, and pilafs.