Saffron: The Diamond of Spices
Where Does It Come From and Why is It So Expensive?
Before you shell out your hard earned money on a gram of this luxurious, red-gold (some would say vermillion) spice with the distinctive earthy, honey-like taste, it may be useful to know where it comes from and why it’s so costly. Unless you live in Iran, which produces the majority of saffron, or in Spain, which is a huge exporter, odds are you won’t find high-quality at a cheap price. This is because the threads (the dried stigmas of the violet flowers of Crocus sativus, a member of the Iris family), must be harvested by hand, and it can take up to 250,000 flowers to make one pound. When you take into account extensive labor, time and limited means, then, yes, saffron is certainly a jewel amongst spices.
Quantity Does Not Mean Quality: 3 Things to Look Out for When Buying Saffron:
1. Finding the real deal can be tricky. At my local grocer, a tiny packet of red threads sell for $7.99 a gram and is labeled as “Pure Spanish Saffron.” How true this is, especially since it ships from Texas, is hard to determine. Perhaps a better bet is to investigate your city’s world markets (normally Indian or Pakistani), or online shops to order directly from the source.
2. Another gastronomic concern is whether or not you are purchasing genuine saffron or simply the ambiguously titled “azafrán” (usually found in the ‘ethnic’ food aisles or in Latin American shops), which is sometimes a guise for safflower; while the later lends a similar yellowish color to food, it is virtually tasteless.
3. The last thing to keep in mind when searching for this diamond in the rough is whether or not to go the powdered route. While crushed saffron may be cheaper and require less elbow grease, in this instance, it would be wise to err on the side of caution. You never know if the powdered stuff is laced with safflower or even turmeric, both of which will severely alter the particular flavor of real saffron. Another hint: Redder is better and the threads should have a brittle texture.
Best Saffron Dishes—Recipe #1:
1.You knew it was coming: paella. Yes, that famous rice dish born in Valencia, Spain, is renowned for pick-of-the-market flavors and the warm aroma of saffron only enhances this classic fare. Most recipes call for one ‘pinch’ (a teaspoon) and recommend toasting the threads. Prepare to fight off your friends for those last tasty scoops of socorrat (the perfectly burned rice at the bottom of the pan)!
Want to learn how to make your own paella? Read on!:
Saffron Recipe #2:
For those who like fish, Bouillabaisse is a filling stew from the French city of Marseille. Saffron is the backbone of this mouth-watering treat and it’s slightly spicy zing makes it a perfect meal for a chilly winter night. Be sure to crush the threads into powder for maximum diffusion.
Saffron Recipe #3:
A superb side plate that can be paired with practically anything is saffron scalloped potatoes. First and foremost, the spice should be steeped in hot water for about 20 minutes, then combined with butter, half and half, onions and garlic—the results are sure to cater to all tastes. Add springs of rosemary for extra flavor.
Once You Have It, Never Let It Go:
Okay, while you won’t want to preserve your stash of saffron in the family safe for decades, a little bit can certainly go a long way. If properly stored, the threads can last several months or even years—just keep them tightly sealed in a glass jar (some recommend wrapping them in tinfoil) away from any light. While the potency of aroma may dwindle, oftentimes merely soaking them in hot water will bring out the intense honeyed scents. Another good rule of thumb for conserving your saffron: For the aesthetic pop of the red-gold color, simply use powdered turmeric or safflower and save the real deal for a truly sensational dish.