Cooking with saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, can be intimidating as it’s not very used in European cuisine. And I know I wouldn’t want to waste all those precious strands here and there just for the sake of experimenting. As there are some rules when it comes to cooking with saffron that can make a world of a difference, so I’m sharing some of the saffron essentials that I’ve learned together with one delicious recipe you can begin with when cooking with saffron.
botanical name: Crocus sativus
family name: Iridaceae
Why is saffron so expensive?
One saffron flower has only three characteristically orange red stigmas, and to get 450g of saffron it takes 200,000 flowers that are harvested by hand. And not only harvesting, all work around saffron starting from planting is done manually. Saffron flowers are planted annually and a harvest starts mid October and lasts the next 4-6 weeks. The flowers must be picked when its not too hot and after the morning dew disappears, followed by separating the stigmas, drying or toasting.
What does it taste like?
Saffron has a rich, flowery, warm and slightly astrigent taste. It’s lasting aroma develops over time, making saffron dishes even tastier the day after.
What are the best saffron ingredients pairings?
Most popular one is saffron paired with rice, from Persian baked saffron rice to Spanish paella or Italian risotto Milanese. Saffron works well in soups, enhancing their soothing, warming properties. You can also use it in white, creamy pasta sauces, vegetable ragouts, potato dumpling dough and even in baking.
Due to its balanced aroma saffron is great in sweet dishes: rice puddings, sweet custard desserts, pastry and cakes. Yum!
How to cook with saffron?
Don’t overdo the saffron as the dish will taste bitter. Just a small pinch is enough for a 4 serving dish.
Gently crush the saffron leaves with your fingers and cover with a bit of hot water, about 50ml. The same goes for ground saffron.
It takes about 20 minutes for saffron to develop its full aroma, so leave it in the water until it gets its warm deep yellow red colour.
Add to the dish at the end of the cooking process to preserve its full aroma.
The saffron will continue to develop its aroma for the next 24h, so the dish might be even tastier the day after.
You can add both the infused water and the stigmas to the dish.
A few things to know before buying saffron
As with anything precious, cheating is common, so how to tell the saffron is real?
Taste: true saffron tastes bitter and slightly astringent.
Smell: its scent is sharp and intense aromas of tobacco, earth, wood, vanilla, salty and sweet combined. In any case, false ones don’t smell they say.
Test the colour: real saffron doesn’t loose its colour after soaked in hot water and the water will turn warm yellow red colour.
And you’ll know you’re buying a genuine saffron if a sales person offers you themselves to test all the above.
How to store saffron?
Good news is, saffron will last a long time, about 2 years if kept best in an airtight container, away from the light and in the cool, but not refrigerated.
What are its other benefits?
Saffron has soothing and warming qualities, and is used in sedatives, to relieve from spasms, indigestion especially bloating.
Soothing Creamy Saffron Soup
Exactly what I needed on this cold, autumn Sunday: a bit of warmth that feels like a soothing hug. This deliciously creamy soup is a great way to balance the energy, calm and ground both body and mind during the change of seasons.
Prepare a pinch of saffron covering it in hot water and set aside.
Preheat a pot at a medium heat, add 1tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, half a leek sliced, half a celery root sliced and give it a good stir.
Add a pinch of salt, black pepper, a tiniest drop of five spice mix (cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Szechwan peppercorns), than toss in 4 diced carrots, 2 diced courgettes and about 500g of sliced pumpkin.
Add just enough water to cover the veggies, reduce the heat to low, put the lid on and leave it to simmer for the next 40 minutes. Add the saffron water and strains and continue to simmer for the next 10-15 minutes.
Leave to cool a bit, then blitz it all with a hand mixer and serve topped with a splash of pumpkin oil, seeds and fresh parsley.