Saffron might seem like an elusive and mysterious spice, but it’s a versatile ingredient worthy of a spot in your pantry.
The spice has a long, storied history and appears in Mediterranean, Iranian, and Asian cuisines. Saffron contributes to the signature yellow color in dishes such as paella and Risotto Milanese, perfuming them with sweet aromas akin to honey and hay.
Legend says that risotto Milanese—an Italian rice dish that often accompanies ossobuco—was created when Italian stained glass makers added a pinch of saffron (historically used to tint glass yellow) to a risotto served at a wedding.
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Also nicknamed “red gold,” saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. But not without good reason—these thin threads are actually the stigmas of a flower, crocus sativas (or “saffron crocus”). The flowers produce only three stigmas and bloom in a one-week window every year.
Once the flower has bloomed, the harvesting process must happen quickly and meticulously; at dawn the stigmas are extracted by hand from the flowers, which wilt soon after blossoming. About 1,000 flowers yield 1 ounce of saffron (that’s only about 4 pounds of saffron harvested per acre of land).
The culinary benefits of this hard-to-harvest spice, however, are worth every penny. A little saffron goes a long way—just a few crushed threads can completely elevate a dish.
Bloom the threads in warm water or broth, or lightly crush and sprinkle them into soups, sauces, batters, etc. Use saffron to add bright, floral notes to hearty seafood dishes such as Bouillabaisse and Monterey Bay Cioppino. Or heighten the visual appeal of sauces and toppings, such as this saffron-water swirl atop Chicken Biryani. For show-stopping desserts, add a pinch of saffron to the batter, as in this Saffron-Orange Bundt Cake.
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Not all saffron is created equal, however. Saffron is sold in different grades, which yield varying intensities of color and flavor. Look for dark red threads, which are harvested from the top of the stigma. These have a more high-quality, concentrated flavor than lighter red threads, which are picked from the base (and contain some of the yellow “style,” the part of the flower below the stigma).
In Iran, saffron is graded on several levels: sargol (red tips only), pushal (red stigmas with some yellow style), “bunch” saffron (red stigmas with a lot of yellow style), and konge (yellow styles only). Other countries of origin, such as Spain, Greece, or India, follow their own grading systems. The pricing can vary dramatically depending on the grade, ranging from $500 to $5,000 per pound.
Luckily, high-quality saffron can be purchased in small amounts for less than $20, and just a few fractions of an ounce can transform dozens of meals.