In the center of a low-growing purple crocus (crocus sativus) are three orange stigma. These stigma are the most cherished of all spices, saffron. Its exorbitant price is justified when you consider that the stigma must be picked by hand, and it takes approximately 75,000 stigma to make 1 pound of saffron.
Luckily, it doesn’t take much saffron to color and flavor your food. One or two strands, carefully steeped in liquid, can infuse a whole pot of rice with its dry, floral aroma.
Nonbelievers soon discover that too much of a good thing is bitter and unpleasant.
Saffron is used throughout Europe and the Middle East. It’s grown in India, Iran, and Spain as well as Mexico. The Spanish government oversees a grading system, but no such system exists in Iran or India. Still, the quality is high and connoisseurs can judge the quality, country of origin, and even territory by flavor and aroma.
Often the saffron color is simulated by the use of turmeric, safflower, or marigold, but the sweet and pungent flavor cannot be duplicated.
When buying saffron, look for a vibrant red color. The older it gets, the closer to brown it becomes. Saffron is harvested in late fall, and good suppliers will date their product. Saffron keeps well, but don’t pay too much for a batch that’s obviously old. Old saffron is dry and brittle, so avoid a batch with a lot of broken pieces at the bottom of the jar.
When I use saffron, I toast it quickly in a dry skillet (just for a few seconds…it burns pretty quick), let it cool, then crumble it into a warm liquid to steep before adding it to a recipe.
The low-cholesterol oil of the safflower (carthamus tinctorius), extracted from its seeds, is the most common use of this thistle-like herb today. But historically it was grown as a dye, both for food and textiles. Its shaggy orange flowers look a lot like saffron to the uninitiated, so beware. Disreputable vendors have been known to try and fool the consumer. If you fall victim, you’ll know right away, as the flavor of safflower is practically nonexistent.