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Uses of Saffron Spice in Cooking & Beyond

Updated on April 25, 2013

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Who knew that something that's used to season food can cost between $500 - $5000 per pound. While I've only been using saffron to make a delicious traditional risotto dish, it turns out, the spice has a lot more uses than just as food seasoning. It is also used for coloring, flavoring, and for many medicinal purposes.

Saffron grows in warm sub-tropical climates, including Mediterranean countries such as Spain, France, Greece, Turkey and Iran, as well as India. Spain and Iran are the largest producers of this luxury food, and together, the two account for 80% of its world’s production. That's about 300 tons per year!

Spices, including different saffrons at a Turkish market
Spices, including different saffrons at a Turkish market | Source

What are Saffron Threads?

Saffron comes from the pretty purple Crocus sativus flower. The center of the flower has tiny red what looks like threads (called stigmas), which have to be handpicked and are used to make saffron spice.

Each flower has just three stigmas and to get one pound of saffron, about 75,000 threads are needed! That's a lot of flowers... and a lot of hand-picking! Considering the amount of labor involved in harvesting saffron, I can understand the hefty price tag for saffron.

Saffron comes either powdered or in threads.

Medicinal Uses of Saffron

Saffron has many different uses and they're not just limited to cooking.

Saffron is used for many medicinal purposes, including for treating:

  • Headaches (by applying it as paste to the forehead)
  • Asthma
  • Common cold
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Premature ejaculation
  • As an aphrodisiac
  • baldness

How to Use & Store Saffron

Saffron is used for many different purposes, including medicinal purposes, in manufacturing as a fragrance in perfumes, as dye for clothing, and it's used by average people like you and I in food as a spice or as additions to recipes such as for risotto (my personal favorite, featured at the end of this article). In food, it can also be used as yellow food coloring and as flavoring.

Interesting uses of saffron historically included ancient Romans using the spice to perfume their baths and European women once used it to tint their hair.

Saffron is beneficial to skin, adding a glow to it and also curing blemishes. There's an oil in saffron called Kumkumaadi tail, which is used as a main ingredient for creams to lighten and even out skin tones.

It is best to store saffron in an air-tight container, away from sunlight since the spice is sensitive to both light and moisture. It can last for 2-3 years, if you store it properly.

Saffron soak
Saffron soak | Source

How to Prepare Saffron for Cooking

Heat releases saffron's flavor so if you're cooking with it, you may need to soak it in hot water or broth.

To soak saffron, add 3 teaspoons of preferred liquid to a teaspoon of saffron. Make sure you cover each saffron thread with liquid in order for it to properly soak. Make sure though that you don't crush any threads! Leave the saffron to soak for at least two hours but no more than 12 hours. The saffron threads will expand to more than double their dry size.

Also pre-soaking the spice disperses the red color throughout the food.

Saffron has a bitter taste and a hay-like fragrance.

5 stars from 1 rating of Risotto alla Milanese

Risotto with Saffron Recipe (Risotto Alla Milanese)

I personally prefer to use saffron in order to make one of my favorite dishes - risotto.

Risotto is a creamy Italian rice dish made exclusively with a special medium-short grain rice called Arborio (it can't be substituted with any other type of rice) and saffron is one of the ingredients giving it a special taste. The creamy texture develops with constant steering of the rice while cooking.

This recipe is for a classic Italian dish that I use at my house as a vegetarian dish served with crusty bread and a nice green crispy salad. It never fails!

Cook Time

Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 20 min
Ready in: 30 min
Yields: Serves four people

Variation to the classic Risotto alla Milanese

If you're looking to add a little something to this classic Risotto alla Milanese, you can add ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes, or veggies like asparagus, squash, or even mushrooms. To do so, chop the ingredients you want to add and add them when you're stirring in the last addition of broth.


  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup Marsala wine or red cooking wine
  • a pinch loose saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup Arborio rice (uncooked)
  • Parmesan cheese


  1. Mix the vegetable broth, water, wine, and saffron in a saucepan and heat it until it begins to simmer. Once simmering, lower the heat to the lowest temperature so that the liquid just remains warm.
  2. While the liquids are keeping warm on the stove, get a 3-quart saucepan, set it to medium heat and melt the butter in it. Once the butter is melted, add the chopped onion and stir until they're golden. When the onions are pretty uniformly golden, add the cup of rice to the mix and stir until the rice is smothered in the butter/onion mixture.
  3. Slowly add the liquid broth from Step 1 and keep stirring with a wooden spoon. Add about a quarter cup of the liquid mixture at a time and once you get a clear path at the bottom of the saucepan, add more liquid. As you keep cooking and steering, it will take longer and longer to get a clear path. Once you're out of liquid and can draw a clear path on the bottom of the pot, your delicious risotto alla Milanese is ready!
  4. Serve the risotto warm and sprinkle with however much Parmesan cheese you want over each plate. Enjoy!
Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 200 grams
Calories 265
Calories from Fat99
% Daily Value *
Fat 11 g17%
Saturated fat 6 g30%
Carbohydrates 32 g11%
Sugar 1 g
Fiber 1 g4%
Protein 9 g18%
Cholesterol 26 mg9%
* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.


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    • livingpah2004 profile image

      Milli 5 years ago from USA

      Great information about saffron. I love your risotto recipe. Will try making it. Voted up!

    • profile image

      summerberrie 5 years ago

      This is such a beautiful and informative hub about saffron. The Risotto alla Milanese recipe looks great. I hope you entered this in the cookbook contest! Voted up and useful.

    • Heather Jacobs profile image

      Heather Jacobs 5 years ago

      What a really great article. I love how you talked about the spice in detail before giving a recipe and the pictures are beautiful. Vote up!

    • Global-Chica profile image

      Anna 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Hi urmilashukla! Mmmm I love Indian desserts... they're some of my favorites but I never tried making them myself and would love to get a recipe or two. I didn't know Indian sweets use saffron and have only been using the spice for my risotto recipe but should try to make an Indian dessert. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    • urmilashukla23 profile image

      Urmila 5 years ago from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA

      I know saffron spice is very expensive. We use it in rice pudding,pulav and some other Indian sweets. Your recipe looks delicious. Will be making it. Useful and voted up!