Saffron was a spice regularly used in the kitchen when I was a child. Today, the top shelf of my spice rack holds more than a few different varieties, ready to season my latest dish.
This spice is a particularly expensive commodity due to the sheer volume it takes to produce a large quantity. It is harvested by hand from the stigma of the saffron crocus, which only blooms for a short time during the fall months.
The gorgeous blossoms feature petals ranging in color from vibrant violet to pale lavender which is in stark contrast to the bright red orange hue of the stigmas. Each crocus only yields 3 stigmas and it takes thousands to produce a single ounce of spice.
Recipes often will call for a pinch of saffron, which corresponds to about 14 threads.
The unique color this golden spice brings to your table is remarkable. Dishes infused with this treasure appear to glow. The aroma is unlike any other. The taste is earthy, with sweet woody tones. Too much will turn your meal bitter, so you must take care to use a gentle hand when seasoning.
Many varieties are found throughout the world, including Spain, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, and Tasmania. Spanish saffron, such as the recommended Mehr brand shown above, is probably the most common variety, and the type you may find in your own spice cabinet and is the traditional choice for paella dishes.
Foodal recommends Kingdom Quality Afgan (Persian) Saffron available from Amazon
Persian saffron from Iran is probably the next best known variety and is one of the best types for preparing Mediterranean cuisine. However, it is often difficult to find a reliable supplier in the West.
In our investigations, we stumbled on a remarkable substitute from Afghanistan (which shares a western boarder, climate, and soil types with Iran) that we’d whole heartedly recommend. The is the Kingdom Quality brand shipped from Amazon. Yes, their sales page is a little over the top, but the quality is good (5 star reviews).
Keep in mind that there are different types and grades available. Some types are sold with another flower piece, called the style, attached. This practice lessens the price, since it is not considered to be pure, but the quality of the taste should not be affected. You can purchase different varieties online or at your favorite specialty market.
Preparing your saffon for use
Saffron is either available in powdered form, which is ready to use, or threads. If you purchase threads, you will need to prepare them before use. For a recipe that serves 4 to 6 people, you will need anywhere from 14 to 16 threads.
First, using a mortar and pestle, the back of a spoon, or your fingers, crush the threads in a small bowl or cup. Pour hot water over the crushed saffron, and let soak for about 20 minutes, or until the water has cooled. Now, you are ready to add the mixture to your recipe.
The perfect companion to rice dishes, risotto, paella, puddings; this spice makes a culinary statement that you will not soon forget.
Risotto alla Milanese con Luganega
My fondest childhood memories are centered around the times I spent in the kitchen wth my grandmother.
To this day, I can still smell the sweet aroma of saffron along with homemade chicken broth filling our apartment while a pot of chicken simmered on the stovetop.
The taste of creamy risotto infused with saffron was always my first request when returning home on college breaks. Risotto alla Milanese con Luganega holds a special place in my heart. Rice dishes referred to as “Milanese” usually feature saffron.
Looking for more herb and spice information? Be sure to check out Foodal’s Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Herbs and Spices.
About Jennifer Swartvagher
Jennifer is an experienced journalist and author. Her work has been featured on TODAY Parents, The New York Times Blog, BlogHer, Scary Mommy, and scores of other parenting and cooking publications.