Saffron is used in most Persian dishes to add color, aroma and flavor to the dish. A little saffron goes a long way in Persian dishes. Saffron is dried stigmas of crocus sativus flowers, a small perennial plant about a foot tall. The plant flowers in the fall in different countries, including Greece, India, Iran, Afghanistan and Spain. In a good year, each saffron crocus plant might produce several flowers. Each flower has three stigmas or female parts and two stamen or male parts. Each stigma is thread like in appearance and is red or dark red in color towards the top and yellow towards the bottom of the stigma, where it is attached to the flower. The three female stigmas are the only part of the saffron crocus that when dried properly, become commercial saffron. Each red stigma is like a little capsule that encloses the complex chemicals that make up saffron aroma, flavor, and yellow dye. Over 200,000 crocus stigmas must be harvested to produce one pound of saffron. Stigmas are picked by hand over a six week period, with an equally hands-on intensive drying process to follow.
In culinary world saffron is used to add color, aroma and flavor to dishes. Saffron threads must be steeped in liquid for hours to release their aroma, flavor and color. When saffron threads are ground into powder, they don’t need to be steeped and can be added directly to any recipe. The chemicals corresponding to aroma, flavor and color are immediately released in the food.
Saffron is probably one of the world’s oldest and most expensive cultivated spices dating back to over 3,000 years ago. It was considered to be the essence of youth and life in Greece and a proper gift for the newlywed. The Chinese used it in medicinal respects to treat almost any ailment. Romans used it to perfume public places. The traditional caste markings of wealthy people in India were colored with saffron. In Asia it was sprinkled over clothing for its nice scent.
Purchasing Good Quality Saffron
The most important rule in buying saffron is to find a source that you can trust. Saffron’s coloring strength determines its flavor and aroma, the higher its coloring strength, the higher its value. Good quality saffron is all red and has a strong and fresh aroma.
The male part of the saffron flower (stamens) are sometimes added to the red stigmas to increase the weight of commercial saffron. The stamens have no culinary value which means no aroma, no flavor or color. Pure saffron contains only the stigma of the crocus flower. Saffron composed of red and yellow portions of the stigma are less potent and cheaper.
Saffron comes in threads or powder form. It’s best to buy the threads and ground it yourself because powdered saffron lose their potency more quickly and are also more prone to adulteration with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Legitimate powdered saffron is red-orange and is made by grinding saffron stigmas. Adulteration can also consist of selling mislabeled mixes of different saffron grades or tinting threads red. A very uniform red color or a long red thread indicate the whole saffron thread was tinted.
Saffron should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry and preferably dark place. Refrigeration is not recommended as it will collect moisture faster once it is out of the refrigerator unless you use all of it immediately. A good measure of the herb’s freshness and potency is its odor. If the saffron does not have a noticeable pungent smell, it is probably past its peak. Saffron ages gracefully so do not panic. You can keep your saffron with your other spices on the kitchen shelf for up to two years.