Medicinal Value and Other Uses of Saffron
What is Saffron?
Saffron is a well-known spice used for its medicinal value as well as other uses including its most famous, cooking. The spice is derived from a beautiful but unassuming little flower called, ironically, the saffron crocus. This crocus is actually a member of the iris family, but interestingly does not have a known wild variety. It’s believed to be a direct relative of a variety that is native to Crete and can be found cultivated in Greece. Iran, however, is the world’s top producer with most of its crop being exported. It's followed by Morocco, the Kashmir region, Azerbaijan, Spain, and Italy.
The spice is derived by taking the 3 brilliant red stigmas (the “female” part of the flower) and drying them. As a result, saffron, regardless of its application, is one of the costliest ingredients by weight in the world. For such a little flower that’s a pretty big boast. In most Western countries the going average retail price is approximately US$1,000 per pound. I wouldn’t want to spill any. Considering it takes approximately 150,000 flowers to produce one kilogram of dried saffron, you can see why. If you were to grow saffron, although it sounds enterprising, it would require a field area of 2000 m squared per kilogram of harvest. No get-rich-quick scheme here. There is a less costly, or lower grade, available, but it uses the yellow "male" stamen which provide no flavor.
Ancient Medicinal Uses of Saffron
Let's take a look at saffron's medicinal value before we get into it's other uses that we're more familiar with. It's medicinal uses are almost legendary appearing in cultures from Medieval Europe to Ancient Egypt and Persia. Sometimes it was prescribed in monumental quantities, but it's believe it was more of a status symbol for the rich than it was a necessity.
In Europe the medicinal uses included the treatment of respiratory disorders like coughs and colds,scarlet fever, smallpox, cancer, hypoxia, and asthma. Other uses were for: blood disorders, insomnia, paralysis, heart diseases, stomach upsets, gout, chronic uterine haemorrhage, dysmorrhea, amenorrhea, infant colic, and eye disorders. Some ancient practitioners also assumed because of it's brilliant yellow color it was useful in the treatment of jaundice.
For the ancient Persians and Egyptians saffron was an aphrodisiac. I would imagine just knowing you had the bucks to burn on a fragrant version of Viagra alone would have the same effect, but who am I to say? It was also a general-use antidote against poisoning, a digestive stimulant, and a tonic for dysentery and measles.
The early Romans even stuffed pillows with saffron to help prevent hangover.
Quick List of Conditions Saffron Helps With:
Aches and pains
Memory and recall
Modern Day Medicinal Values of Saffron
More up-to-date research methods tells us that the carotenoids founds in saffron help to suppress cancer (anticarcinogenic), suppress the frequency of mutation in an organism (anti-mutagenic), and have an effect on the immune system (immunomodulatory). As a result it counters a wide range of tumours and leukaemia cell lines. In more laymen's terminology, the goodies in saffron disrupt cancer cells and their ability to mutate and multiply and shows promise as a new and alternative treatment for a variety of cancers.
Other medicinal uses of saffron include improved wound-healing as well as antioxidant properties promoting "anti-aging." As a result it's considered as an additive to pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and foods to help sustain our youthful appearance and vigor.
It's believed saffron will help relieve the aches and pains associates with arthritic conditions, and has been proven to prevent vision loss in the elderly as well as help regain vision in the event of cataracts. It helps with memory retention and recall, and it's also known to have positive effects in patients suffering from neuro degenerative disorders.
High levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides can be lowered by eating saffron or taking it as an herbal supplement
Sadly, large doses of saffron are letthal. On the bright side most human beings couldn't afford the quantities necessary so we can all sit back, relax and enjoy its benefits.
Interestingly, if you compare its medicinal value to our ancestors to those of the present day, they appear to know what they were doing.
Other Uses of Saffron - As a Dye and Fragrance
Age-old other uses of saffron are as a coloring agent or dye. It has been used in India, China and Medieval Ireland and Scotland for centuries as evidenced by the vivid robes of the Buddhist, HIndu, Irish and Scottish monks, and among the noble classes. It's also used throughout the middle east and of interesting note, Muslim men are disuaded from wearing fabrics dyed in saffron. Although it's color is beautiful, and can be intensified by repeated dipping in the color, it's also a very unstable dye. The color will inevitably fade over time into a soft buttery yellow. Attempts are still ongoing to find a less expensive and more stable alternative to saffron dyes but to date no one has been able to duplicate it's signature color.
Interestingly, in histology, the brilliant saffron dye is also used to stain tissues samples.
Saffron was also used in a substance called crocinum which combined with dragon's blood, alkinet and wine was applied to perfume the hair.
Saffron was also mixed with wine and sprayed in Roman amphitheatres as an air freshener.
Foods Saffron Compliments
Fish and shellfish
Using Saffron in Cooking
This is the most obvious use of saffron I can think of so I saved it for last. Saffron is used commonly in the cuisines of Europe, North Africa and Asia. You will find its honey-hay-like flavor and brilliant yellow color used in everything from fish and rice dishes to condiments and confectioneries. You'll find it used in cheeses, liquors, soups and meat dishes. I won't get into specific recipes here, there are too many to mention but I think you get the picture that even though this is an expensive spice, it's also very versatile.
Saffron is the consummate symbol for the necessity of guarding against excess. If you go overboard with it in a recipe, your dish will end up with a medicinal taste and the flavor tends to intensify the second day. If you use just the right amount, however, saffron will impart a pleasant, somewhat spicy yet bitter flavor to a dish. And don't let it's cost scare you. It can be purchased in quantities as small as a gram which are a little easier on the pocket book.
To store your saffron, be sure to keep it in a container away from light and moisture. If you do, it will last for years.
When using saffron in a dish, it's necessary to soak it first to help release and impart its flavor and color. Here are some tips:
Steep your saffron in hot water, broth, or even alcohol before adding to food.
For every teaspoon of saffron, add 3 teaspoons of liquid. Using a spoon, make sure the saffron threads are separated for proper soaking but take care not to crush the threads. Soak the threads for a minimum of two hours to a maximum of 12. Expect the leaves to expand to 1 1/2 times their dry size.
If you forgot to soak the saffron or you're in a hurry, add 5 teaspoons of liquid for every teaspoon of saffron and soak for 20 minutes. Using the back of a spoon mash the threads until you have a thick paste and can add that to your dish.
With care, slowly toast threads in a heavy skillet over low heat. You must be very careful not to burn them. Once burned, saffron is unusable. After toasting, grind threads into a powder and use as directed in the recipe.
If you want to use powdered saffron, you'll need to know it loses it flavor more rapidly. Buying cheaper saffron won't save you any money in the long run. You'll soon find it takes more to make the same flavor impact.
General rule when substituting powdered saffron:
1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads = 1/4 teaspoon of saffron powder. The general rule is to use 1/2 the amount of powder as you would threads.
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