Saffron

Picking saffron flowers in Castilla-La ManchaPicking saffron flowers in Castilla-La Mancha

Photo above by Félix Lorrio ©ICEX. Photo below of flowers by Ana Callejas.

Saffron threads are the stigmas (the female parts) of Crocus sativus, a fall-blooming crocus that thrives in Mediterranean countries. Iran is the leading producer, with Spain a distant second place. Much smaller amounts are grown in India (the Kashmir region), Greece and Italy. The Moors introduced saffron to Spain, and production now centers around the region of La Mancha.

When the crocus blooms, usually in late October, the stunning purple flowers reveal three filament-like stigmas prized since ancient times for dye and for cooking. The harvest window is brief, generally only a couple of weeks, so farmers must mobilize large crews—often family members and neighbors—to get all the flowers picked in time.
Saffron flowers and stigmasSaffron flowers and stigmas

At a typical saffron farm, the harvest begins early in the morning. Workers pick the flowers into baskets, then take them to a protected area where more workers—usually women because their hands are smaller—separate the valuable stigmas from the flowers, which have no further use. An experienced picker can do 10,000 flowers a day.

The bright red stigmas are attached to a threadlike yellow segment called the style. The best processors remove the style because it has no aromatic qualities and removing it allows the stigmas to dry better. Saffron threads with the style removed are marketed as coupé, the French word for “cut,” and command a high price.

Finally, the stigmas are dried to drive off moisture. If done properly, the threads will be brittle, not spongy. Less-scrupulous producers may short-cut the drying process since moister saffron is heavier. When properly dried, it takes 5,200 flowers to make 1 ounce of saffron, which largely explains why the spice is so costly.
Saffron for sale behind a protective caseSaffron for sale behind a protective case
Read on to learn how to evaluate saffron and how to use it properly. A few tips for the saffron buyer:

  • When purchasing saffron, don’t be influenced by the price. A high price is not a guarantee of quality.
  • Judge saffron by eye, feel and aroma. The best-quality threads will be red throughout, with little or no yellow, which would indicate the presence of the style. Threads with some yellow will still color and flavor your dish, but they should cost less than premium saffron because you will need more of them.
  • Touch the saffron, if possible; it should feel brittle, as if it might break at the touch. If it is spongy, you can toast it lightly before using it, as many recipes recommend, but you are paying a high price for water.
  • Smell the saffron. If it has a musty aroma, leave it behind. The best saffron has a honeyed, toasty perfume.
  • It is preferable to purchase saffron threads, not powder, so that you can evaluate quality. Powder can be easily adulterated.

Using saffron: For maximum impact, steep saffron threads in liquid for at least 20 minutes before using. The longer you steep it, the more flavor you will extract (up to a point, of course). The liquid can be hot stock, cream or water, or room-temperature wine or vinegar. There is no need to steep powdered saffron.

In many Andalusian homes, cooks have a small brass mortar for pounding saffron threads to a powder. Saffron is essential to many paellas and is used in other Spanish rice dishes and fish soups.

For more on the history, cultivation and evaluation of saffron, read The Essential Saffron Companion by John Humphries, or visit www.saffron.com.

Related information

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