What Is Saffron?

Turkish Saffron
Turkish Saffron

For those of you that want an answer to the question, "What is saffron?" the answer is simple. It's the the stigma of a special type of crocus. This fascinating herb has been used for centuries throughout the Middle East and Europe and remains today a popular ingredient in rice-based dishes.

What Is Saffron?

Saffron comes from a special type of crocus, Crocus sativus, part of the Iridaceae family. It grows primarily in the Mediterranean region, southern California region, and southwest Asia. The plant is also known as the saffron crocus and may grow up to 16 inches tall. The perennial typically flowers in the fall and sports tall, straight leaves. The blooms are a pale purple color with bright yellowish-red stigmas.

Though the entire plant is technically saffron, most people refer to the stigmas of Crocus sativus when identifying saffron. The stigmas are harvested from the plant and dried into saffron threads for use for cooking, dyeing and medicinal purposes. It takes approximately 150 flowers to produce a single gram of dried threads, which makes saffron the most expensive spice on earth.

Due to the variety of climates where saffron crocus plants grow, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) samples and grades the stigmas for color, taste, and fragrance. The color intensity is graded and ISO provides the grower with a grade based on the sample batch. There are four levels of grading and the pricing for saffron is dependent on the grade achieved. This process helps keep pricing transparent and allows buyers to know what quality they are getting.

Saffron Culinary Uses

Types of Saffron

Saffron used in cooking is sold as either saffron threads or powdered saffron. Saffron threads are extremely concentrated, and a few threads may be all you need to impart strong color and flavor to your recipe. Saffron quickly loses its flavor when exposed to light and moisture so when shopping for saffron threads, look for air tight plastic or glass containers as opposed to cellophane.

Saffron powder is less expensive than saffron threads, but the taste is not as strong as pure saffron threads. Powdered saffron is frequently mixed with turmeric, another spice, which weakens the saffron taste. If you're buying saffron powder, read the ingredients carefully to make sure you're getting pure saffron.

Cooking with Saffron

Saffron has a flavor that strengthens with age so it works well in dishes that take time to develop. To get the most from your saffron threads, steep them in your cooking liquid just as you would a tea bag for a cup of tea. Let them soak for several hours, if possible, to get the most flavor from the threads. The dried threads will essentially reconstitute and the deep yellowish-red color will spread throughout the liquid and act as a dye. When you're ready to cook your meal, simply add the liquid in with the rest of your ingredients and prepare as usual. If you don't have the time to let the saffron threads steep for hours, let the threads soak for at least 10 minutes then grind them into a paste. Use the paste in your dish, making sure to thoroughly mix it with the other ingredients so the flavor spreads throughout.

Many recipes call for a pinch of saffron or a tiny amount. Until you're used to its strong taste and flavor, use the smallest amount possible. A little bit goes a long way in most recipes.

Traditional Saffron Dishes

Saffron is an important herb in many cuisines. Traditional saffron dishes include:

Using Saffron

Now that you know the answer to the question "What is saffron?," have some fun exploring the many recipes that call for saffron. Experiment with ethnic dishes and learn more about the cuisines that call for this ancient spice.

What Is Saffron?