Saffron is a powerfully flavored herb used in gourmet dishes. It's expensive, so try a small amount to understand what it tastes like before adding it to your favorite dishes.
The Flavor of Saffron
Some people say that saffron tastes slightly bitter to them while still lending a semi-sweet taste to dishes. This highly sought after spice offers several tasting notes: semi-sweet and honey-like, floral, fresh like the sea, musky or mushroomy, or even bitter for some. Everyone seems to experience it differently. It's commonly used in Spanish paella dishes, as well as Portuguese and Turkish cooking.
The only real way to find out what saffron tastes like is to try it. It is available in some gourmet grocery stores or online retailers; it can be purchased in very small amounts for sampling or cooking with. Cooking some with plain white rice is a good way to get a sense for its flavor profile.
Use in Small Amounts
A little bit of saffron goes a long way; it's very intense. Just a pinch of saffron is all you need. In fact, it is generally sold in amounts that equal half a teaspoon or less. Usually, recipes call for just a few threads of saffron, which is a fraction of a teaspoon.
To make sure you get the most flavor out of saffron, soak it in a teaspoon of warm water or white wine for 5 minutes before adding it to your recipe. This will help the spice release its natural flavor, and it will help disperse more evenly through your dish. Just dumping a pinch of saffron into other ingredients without soaking it will cause it to clump up, with one person getting a very strong-tasting surprise!
Exotic and Expensive
This seductive and exotic spice is often used in rice dishes (pilaf, paella, risotto) as well as many Iranian sweets as a great deal of saffron is grown and picked in Iran. One of the reasons that saffron is so expensive is that its production is very labor-intensive; it can cost more than an ounce of gold. Inexpensive or cheap saffron is likely an imitation and should be avoided; if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.