All you need to know about this magical spice. Where does it come from, why it’s so special, and how you can use it?
All you need to know about this magical spice. Where does it come from, why it’s so special, and how you can use it?
In this wiki style article, we’ll learn more about saffron, with our experts answering some of the most common questions surrounding this magical spice, such as what is saffron, where does it come from, why is it so special, and how you can use it?
Most people have heard of saffron. You may even know what it looks like – thin reddish strands or threads, as they are usually known. But where do these threads come from?
Saffron threads are harvested stigma taken from the flower head of the crocus sativus. You’ve probably seen crocuses before, but the sativus variety is the only one that saffron comes from. Indeed, the crocus sativus is more commonly called the saffron crocus for this reason. When the flowers bloom, three stigmas appear inside each flower. These are the saffron threads that are harvested to be used in countless different recipes and health products.
In other languages saffron is also known as safran in French, azafran in Spanish, safron in Geman, zafferano in Italian and khesa, kesar, kesram, or zafran in Indian.
In theory, you can grow saffron producing crocus sativus anywhere, although Iran, Spain, Greece, New Zealand, and India are among the most common places for it to be grown.
It is even grown in some places in England, having been introduced to the country in the 1300s. Essex became a hotbed for it, so much so that a market town called Chipping Walden eventually changed its name to Saffron Walden.
A saffron flower is a crocus. Most of us have seen crocuses, but the specific one saffron comes from is the crocus sativus. This is usually referred to as the saffron crocus to recognise its role.
Saffron is a deep yellow colour; some might call it orange or a golden yellow. When you look at the stigmas from the saffron crocus (the plant saffron comes from), you might think they look a reddish orange. However, once used in a recipe, you’ll notice the darker yellow shade.
The crocus sativus is a beautiful flower. When in bloom, it has six petals that open first thing and reveal the delicate saffron stigmas within. Each flower has just three of these. They must be carefully collected and dried to create the saffron you would buy.
When shopping for saffron, look for a collection of thin dried strands inside a packet, jar, or similar container. It is quite common to find the container is not full. You should, however, be able to see the strands and this will often give you a good indication of quality.
Many people say saffron cannot be confused with anything else – not once you taste it, anyway. It has a sweet flavour, yet one that is also subtle. If you explore the topic, you’ll see the same words coming up regularly – words such as earthy and grassy, floral, and yet savoury.
So, why does the taste of saffron elicit so many different answers that seem miles apart from one another?
Firstly, we must be clear that genuine saffron has such potent flavours. As the spice is expensive to buy, there are imitations out there. If you buy these (probably because the price is attractive), expect a plastic or artificial taste. The real thing can still seem bitter to some, although pungent is a better word. It’s certainly a Marmite taste – you either love it or dislike it!
Here, though, it does become clear that cheap saffron (too cheap) is likely not saffron at all – at least not exclusively. It’s therefore a good idea to do your homework before buying saffron to avoid cheap imitations
You may think of crops grown in huge quantities, harvested using automated-machinery, and sent to supermarkets and stalls the world over to sell to the consumer. Not so with saffron. The spice derives from the crocus sativus, yet while the flower can be grown in significant quantities, harvesting it is far trickier.
For starters, the saffron harvesting process is incredibly labour intensive. Machinery cannot be used to harvest a crop of saffron. Crocus flowers are delicate, so each stigma must be carefully harvested by hand. Each flower has just three stigmas inside it. Even more challenging is the fact that the flowers do not remain in prime condition for long. Wilting begins the very same day that blooming occurs.
Furthermore, the stigmas are delicate enough that they must be harvested before the flowers fully open on the day of blooming. And they only bloom in a small window of time once a year. If you were to buy a single gram of saffron threads from a reputable source such as Sara Saffron, many hundreds of crocus flowers would have been harvested to create that one gram.
Saffron is the most expensive spice you can buy. Fortunately, you only need a tiny pinch of it in any recipe – even one that offers multiple servings.
Another reason people view it as special is its delicate nature. With only three stigmas per flower, someone must pluck them out by hand when the flower opens. There is but a short time each year when this can be done.
Saffron is known for its rich, deep red colour and intense flavour, but it also contains antioxidants. These antioxidants are good for our health. Scientific research has shown that antioxidants can improve both mental and physical health in many ways.
Saffron spice is another name for saffron threads. Some manufacturers call their products saffron spice, just so buyers know they are buying a spice.
If you type that question into any of the popular search engines, you’ll see several suggestions for its completion. Among those suggestions are cooking, food, medical, and health queries.
Its most common use is, of course, in cooking. Many people use it to impart a beautiful golden colour to all kinds of recipes, although its unique taste also makes it a popular ingredient.
The deep red colour that comes from the stigmas of the saffron crocus make it an attractive choice for a food dye as well.
Another surprising use is in perfumes, where its aroma can be used with other ingredients to create unique scents.
Some people also use saffron to improve some aspect of their health. Studies have shown promising improvements in people with depression when taking saffron stigma.
We know that saffron is a natural source of antioxidants too. These are known to tackle free radicals in the body, molecules that can damage the body’s cells.
While many people enjoy the flavour of saffron, those that wish to take advantage of its potential health benefits sometimes prefer to take a daily supplement. This can be faster and easier than thinking of a way to add saffron to your daily diet.
There are many possible health benefits derived from saffron. Some people take it regularly as it is thought to help supress the appetite and help with weight loss.
Meanwhile, we can thank crocin and crocetin for the vibrant colour saffron is known for. Yet they may have another purpose, potentially helping reduce inflammation and depression. Several studies have looked at the properties of saffron and its potential to reduce depression and anxiety in humans. In several cases, it saw equal or better results than regular antidepressant medication.
There have also been studies into the antioxidants in saffron. Antioxidants can combat free radicals in the body, and these are thought to lead to many severe diseases. Evidence suggests saffron’s antioxidants may help combat these harmful free radicals.
Lots of people take supplements to boost their health. Saffron supplements contain genuine saffron and typically come in easy to swallow tablet or capsule form. They are measured in milligrams, so the higher the figure, the greater the amount of saffron in each capsule.
Any health supplement such as this should carry safety information since some people can experience side effects of taking saffron extract. As with all supplements, consulting your doctor, reading the directions and making sure you do not exceed the maximum dosage are all vital.
Many people add saffron threads to recipes, but this does not suit everyone. Some dislike the taste or do not cook recipes that would suit the flavour, yet they may still wish to receive the perceived health benefits. A convenient, easy to take supplement is often the ideal alternative in this case. Most saffron supplements are designed to supply a safe amount in one or two capsules taken daily.
While you can put saffron threads straight into anything you are cooking, this isn’t recommended. The strands need some assistance if the full flavour and colour is to be released into the recipe.
The common way of releasing the full flavour, colour and aroma is to add some of the strands – usually just one or two – to some hot water. Don’t use too much water unless a recipe gives you a specific amount. Recipes typically tell you to do this first and set the saffron to one side to ‘steep’ while you prepare the rest of the dish.
Many people recommend adding the threads to water and then crushing them slightly against the edge of the dish or cup to release more colour and flavour. If you do this with your fingers instead, you could lose some of that on your skin.
Once the dish is ready for the saffron, make sure you add the water you soaked it in along with the threads themselves. You won’t need to chop them because they’ll fall to bits as you stir the dish. They’re delicate and so should disappear into the dish.
One last point – the intense colour of the threads means that they may cause staining to plastic utensils and dishes. Make sure you always soak them in something made from glass and use cutlery and utensils that won’t stain either.
There are lots of ways to use saffron in recipes. One of the most popular is saffron rice. The classic recipe uses brown, white, or basmati rice, along with some stock and saffron threads soaked in hot water to release their flavour. This creates a bright yellow rice often seen in paella and Indian dishes. Some saffron rice recipes also contain other ingredients such as peas, fish sauce, olive oil, and even coconut oil. It can be used as a side dish or as a base for something else, like paella or a risotto.
It also works well in seafood dishes. It’s easy enough to find saffron recipes for mussels or a seafood stew, for example. Lemon also goes well with saffron, so you’ll spot the occasional lemon rice recipe that includes the spice. Chicken pairs well with it because it can take on plenty of flavour to give it a different spin.
In researching this wiki, we found other recipes featuring beef, lamb, and pork too. Saffron clearly doesn’t have many limitations. Everything from a tagine to a biryani can take the spice and turn it into something memorable.
Many Persian recipes also contain the spice. It is more common to find recipes from countries that are known for growing it, such as Iran, Spain and India, for instance.
The one element that may surprise plenty of people is that saffron can also be used in sweets and desserts. Many people assume it must be used in main meals and savoury dishes, but puddings, cakes, and other sweet delights including custard can also take full advantage of the spice. Indeed, it brings its bright yellow shade to make many desserts more impressive. Saffron and orange or lemon appears to be a popular choice too.
When you think about saffron, the first thing that may come to mind is saffron rice. This is a vibrant yellow rice used in many notable dishes. It is the perfect accompaniment to many Indian dishes, and for the classic Spanish paella, and has a beautiful flavour. While you might think this is an unusual type of rice, recipes most often use white long-grain rice, although basmati is also used in some dishes. Other ingredients include vegetable stock and saffron threads.
Most saffron rice recipes call for the saffron threads to be steeped in hot water prior to cooking. This helps to release the colour, flavour and aroma. You can also squash the threads using the back of a teaspoon to help the full colour, aroma and flavour come out. The coloured liquid is then added to the cooked rice, along with any other ingredients the recipe may call for.
Sara Saffron offer a full range of authentic saffron direct from the best farms offering incredible freshness, deep colour, pungent aroma and superb flavour saffron. In our expert opinion this is the finest saffron you can buy.
We are saffron specialists offering only the freshest, highest quality saffron from the best farms. Our premium quality products are sold throughout the UK, Europe and further afield to chefs, speciality food, hospitality, wholesale and pharma markets.
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