Saffron

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Saffron Being Plucked, Spain

Saffron is one of the most expensive of spices by weight due to the fact that the stamens of the crocus are picked by hand. It is hugely labour intensive.

Saffron has a rich, warm taste, with a slight pleasant bitterness, that is often overlooked for its radiant colour properties.

Usually used for its colour, 10 saffron stigmas will colour 3 tablespoons (30 ml) of warm water or rosewater in about 20 minutes, which can then be used later. Infusing the saffron before use is the best way to use saffron and if then added to rice, not only flavours the rice, but adds a fantastic bright yellow colour to your rice.

Traditionally, saffron is used in colouring Spanish paella, Italian risotto and Indian rice dishes, as well as making saffron cakes and breads. Saffron complements fish exceptionally well, not only paella dishes, but also bouillabaisse.

Saffron Qualities

Firstly, beware that every saffron producer will tell you that theirs is the best, but they all have their individual qualities. And in time honoured fashion, anything priced "too good to be true" is probably not saffron at all.

Table of Key Grades for Saffron

Name Comments Price
Coupe, Sargol, Stigmata Pure saffron stigmas with with yellow style cut off Premium price
Mancha, Pushal (Poshal or Pooshali) Saffron with the pale yellow style still attached 20% cheaper than premium price

The best saffron is deep red and called coupe for Kashmiri and Spanish saffron and sargol for Iranian saffron. In the next grade there is a proportion of thicker yellow threads for mancha from Kashmir or Spain and pushal from Iran; basically these are mostly the three stigmas still as plucked from the bulb rather than having had the yellow base cut off, so saving some one-fifth of the labour. Some good quality saffron also comes from Greece and Italy, e.g. stigmata from Greece.

Lesser grades are brownish colour and stubby, or have too much yellow which means it is either lesser quality or you are being sold something else, e.g. safflower.

Further reading

  • Hemphill, I., Hemphill, K. (2014) The Spice and Herb Bible, Robert Rose. ISBN: 9780778804932.
  • Norman, J. (2015) Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference, DK Publishing. ISBN: 9781465435989.