A pile of crimson threads each one plucked from the flower of Crocus sativus plants is the most expensive spice on earth: saffron. Ernest Small describes it as a “matted mass of slim, dark orange to reddish-brown, occasionally yellow strands” in the book Top 100 Exotic Food Plants.
Species: C. sativus
Binomial name: Crocus sativus
- Food historians have evidence that saffron has been grown and utilized since ancient times. Mary Newman and Constance L. Kirker, in the book Edible Flowers: A Global History, wrote: “A Sumerian herbal from about 2500 BCE mentions the practice of growing crocus flowers for their prized stamens. Assyrian tablets dated from 668-626 BCE include saffron among the list of 250 herbal plants. The Sumerians often include saffron in their medicinals.”
- Saffron has always been a symbol of wealth and opulence, even before. Andrew Webb, in the book Food Britannia, wrote: “Nero ordered the streets sprinkled with saffron for his entry into Rome.”
- Saffron is part of Cleopatra’s lore: John O’Connell, in The Book of Spice: From Anise to Zedoary, wrote: “Cleopatra is supposed to have bathed in saffron-scented mare’s milk as a prelude to sex.”
Saffron Buying Guide
- Beware of fake saffron. It is tempting to buy cheaper-priced saffron thinking it’s a steal when most of the time, it is not saffron but saffron-looking substitutes. To avoid buying fake saffron, buy from reputable stores and always check the packaging and safety seal on the packaging. Read the details on the packaging as well. They may intentionally deceive customers by pretending to look like saffron but the real product description is indicated in the fine print.
- You may also come across what is called the American saffron, the safflower, which is commonly used as a substitute for saffron because it can mimic the color and taste of saffron when used in cooking.
- Online or physical store? Choose the latter because you can immediately inspect the product to see if it is genuine or authentic, while ordering saffron online is an opportunity often exploited by those selling fake saffron, unless, you are buying from a trusted and reputable vendor that sells online.
- Ernest Small, in the book Top 100 Exotic Food Plants, shared some important information about saffron that can help in buying saffron and discerning whether it is real, fake, or adulterated. “The deeper the color the better the quality. Ground saffron is also available, but as it may be adulterated, the thread form is a more reliable product.”
Saffron Production & Farming in Texas
Saffron grows on US Hardiness Zone 6. The hardiness zone spectrum covering Texas ranges from 6 to 9B. This means saffron can grow in Texas. In fact, Texans can buy Texas-grown saffron. Meraki Meadows, located in Tahoka, Texas, is selling saffron sown and grown here in Texas.
Savory Spice Shop in Austin sells saffron. You can also visit any Walmart, Central Market, or Natural Grocers branch in Texas. These stores sell saffron, at the store and through their e-commerce websites.
If you want to grow saffron in Texas, consider the following: use light, sandy loam soil. Plow the land by February or March, or early summer, and plant saffron bulbs in the summer. Do not irrigate the land after planting the bulbs. Water once a week or just enough that the soil is not dry but it is not overwatered either to prevent problems like root rot. Expect saffron weeds by October and saffron flowers approximately 20 days later. Use tweezers to pick the stigmas. It is best to do this in the morning. The stigmas can be dried using a dehydrator before they are stored in a jar or container with a lid. Store these in a dim, cool location. It will help extend the freshness of the stigmas.
Pesticides, Additives, and Chemicals
Because saffron is expensive and the demand for saffron is high, it is not uncommon to find additives in a bottle or pack of saffron powder. Powdered beet, red-dyed silk fiber, turmeric, and paprika are just some of the additives added to saffron powder.
Iran is a major producer of saffron. India is another Asian country producing saffron, while in Europe, the production of saffron is found in countries like Spain, Greece, France, and Italy.
Saffron threads or powdered saffron are sold in a can, in a plastic bottle, in a glass bottle, or a resealable food packaging pouch or pack.
Saffron is generally expensive so be diligent in examining the packaging before buying saffron, to make sure that the product is not fake, and to be sure that the product inside has not been compromised by any damage on the packaging, like dents, holes, damaged or missing seals, etc.
Chefs and culinary experts describe the taste of saffron in many different ways: smoky, heady, bright, floral, musty, earthy, and sweet. Ernest Small, in the book Top 100 Exotic Food Plants, wrote: “The odor of saffron is tenaciously and characteristically pungent, sweet, spicy, and flowery; the taste is pleasantly spicy and bitter.”
Caution is advised regarding the consumption of saffron among pregnant women because higher than normal consumption of this spice can cause miscarriage.
Saffron is expensive but it is not overly delicate when it comes to storage. The Visual Food Encyclopedia simply advises to “store saffron in an airtight container kept in a cool, dry, dark place.”
Saffron is used to flavor or color (or both) stews, risotto, soups, seafood dishes, sauces, and rice dishes, even puddings, ice creams, and baked goods.
If this is your first time using saffron, remember the basic instructions regarding the use of this spice for cooking. A reminder from Ernest Small: “Whole material can be used, or individual strands can be added intact or crushed. Because the odor is so sharp and penetrating and in view of the possibility of toxicity, no more than called for in recipes should be used. Saffron threads should not be added directly to foods; they should be placed in a little warm water until it takes up the strong yellow color and aroma, and the liquid then poured into the dish being prepared.”
Cooking with saffron is very common in many Asian and European countries. Bouillabaisse, a traditional Provençal fish stew from Marseille, France, is an example of a dish that uses saffron. In Spain, saffron is commonly used in cooking (some of the dishes that come to mind include Arroz con Pollo, Bacalao a la Vizcaina, zarzuela, and paella), while in many parts of the UK, bakers and pastry chefs usually make saffron cakes and loaves. In Italy, saffron is used in making Milan-style risotto. Many countries in the Middle East cook lamb, chicken, and rice with saffron, like the chicken biriani (or biryani) and chelow kabab. Several Asian countries also regularly use saffron in cooking.
Schwenkfelder, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch wedding cake, is flavored with saffron.
Never, ever use wooden utensils or utensils made of rubber and other porous materials when mixing saffron because wood will absorb the flavor.
Saffron is expensive. Turmeric can be used as an alternative to mimic the taste of saffron. To mimic the color of saffron, you can use the synthetic colorant tartrazine.
Saffron can help:
- fight cancer
- improve eyesight
- improve memory
- improve mood and manage episodes of depression
- lower blood sugar levels
- manage PMS symptoms
- promote weight loss
- reduce the risk of heart disease
Saffron contains antioxidants. It is considered an aphrodisiac.
According to The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, “Historically, saffron has been used as an aphrodisiac, diaphoretic (to cause sweating), carminative (to prevent gas), and emmenagogue (to bring on menstruation). In Japan, saffron is encapsulated and used as a sleep aid and in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Modern research suggests the spice may provide protection against cancer, memory loss, heart disease, and inflammation.”