Just Wild about Saffron

- Advertisement -

Many years ago, Donovan sang that he was wild about saffron.

That was a long time ago and I didn’t even know then what saffron was. But time has moved on and I’ve learnt a few things about this expensive spice, mostly due to being able to surf the web to find things out.

When saffron is used in cooking, the saffron threads are infused with a liquid, usually water, and then added to the cooking. The spice aroma is rich, pungent and musky and its taste is variously described as being warm, bitter and musky.

Saffron is made from the styles and stigmas of the saffron crocus (crocus sativus). The stigma is the middle part of the flower that receives pollen and the style attaches the stigma to the flower.

Saffron originated around the Mediterranean and western Asia regions and today the most important saffron producing countries are Spain, Iran, India, Greece and Morocco.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world but why is this?

Well, it’s all in the labour. The stigmas and styles of the saffron crocus are hand-picked. A single saffron crocus has three stigmas that together weigh about 0.5 gram (less than 0.02 oz). It usually takes between 110,000 and 165,000 saffron crocus flowers to produce a kilogram (2.2 lb) of dried saffron (that’s roughly the size of two football fields full of flowers). It takes about 40 hours of labour to hand-pick this amount of saffron so it’s easy to understand why saffron is so expensive spice. A kilogram of dried saffron can cost over US$10,000.

After picking, the saffron stigmas and styles are quickly dried and stored in airtight containers in order to stop the saffron from losing its pungency and flavour (most spices lose their potency if left out in the open and saffron is no exception).

The dried saffron stigmas are called threads and you can buy small containers of saffron at most good supermarkets. I checked at my local Countdown last weekend and a small plastic container cost $8.69, with a net weight of 0.5oz, and you get about 150 threads in the container. Remember that the most expensive place to buy spices is usually a supermarket and you can usually get saffron threads from your local Indian supply shop. I found that the plastic container of spices from a supermarket just wasn’t airtight so I transferred the threads to a small airtight glass jar (apparently you can keep saffron threads fresh in an airtight container for a couple of years).

You need to treat ground saffron with suspicion because the saffron is often adulterated with other powders (such as turmeric) with the mixture being passed off as pure saffron. This kind of substitution is hard to do if you buy saffron threads.

Saffron is expensive but, luckily, you don’t need to use much in cooking because the spice is pretty pungent. It only takes about 10 saffron threads to be infused and then added to rice to give it the typical saffron yellow/orange colour and taste (to infuse the saffron, the saffron threads are lightly crushed between your fingers and then soaked in a small amount of hot water for about 10-15 minutes before being added to the cooking rice).

Sometimes you come across recipes that say to use a pinch of saffron. But what is a pinch? Big fingers grab a lot more threads than small fingers. Most websites that I’ve visited say that a pinch of saffron equates to 0.1 gram (0.004 oz), which is a measure that is way too tiny to register on most kitchen scales. One day I bought a container of saffron threads, noted the net weight, counted the threads and then worked out that there are about 10 saffron threads in a pinch. But you might like to use more, or less, depending on your own tastes.

Saffron is not just used as a spice. Saffron has cancer suppressing and anti-oxidant properties and is used in some medicines. And it also finds its way into some perfumes. And, of course, saffron is widely used to dye clothes (Indian Buddhist robes are dyed with saffron).

Now that song’s in my head again. I used to have Donovan’s song but it disappeared a long time ago. Time to spend another evening on YouTube.

Curry Focus


Great curry recipes and recipe reviews

[email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “Just Wild about Saffron