As the world's most expensive spice, saffron provides a beautiful golden color and pungent, aromatic flavor to foods. You can find it sold as red-gold threads or in ground form, and it is available year-round. It has been used for centuries in Persian, Arab, European, and Indian cuisine.
What Is Saffron?
Saffron is a spice made from the stigmas of the fall-flowering plant Crocus sativus, a member of the iris family. It is native to Asia Minor, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years to be used in medicines, perfumes, dyes, and as a wonderful flavoring for foods and beverages. Saffron threads are fine and have a yellow tendril on one end and a flute on the other. Ground saffron is red to red-orange in color. Saffron is suitable for vegan, gluten-free, and paleo diets.
Saffron vs Copycats
American saffron or Mexican saffron is safflower, a member of the daisy family and the same plant that is used to produce safflower oil. Dried flowers from this plant impart the characteristic yellow color to foods, but they have no flavor.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa), also known as Indian saffron, is a member of the ginger family. It colors food golden yellow but has a different flavor from saffron. Turmeric is used to stretch powdered saffron by unscrupulous retailers.
A warning about meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale)—this unrelated plant is poisonous and should not be confused with saffron.
What Does It Taste Like?
Saffron imparts a somewhat earthy taste that's been described as pungent or even fruity. It is subtle enough that it will be masked in dishes that bolder spices.
Cooking With Saffron
Saffron threads should be crushed before using them in recipes. For ground saffron, it is best to start with saffron threads and lightly toast and grind them yourself. Just be extremely careful not to burn them or they won't be usable. Often, recipes call for only a pinch of saffron, so a little goes a long way.
One common procedure is too steep saffron threads in the cooking liquid before using them. The longer you steep the saffron threads, the stronger the flavor and color of the cooking liquid. Some frugal cooks steep saffron threads and use the liquid in the recipe, and then dry and reuse the threads a second time.
Unfortunately, there is no truly acceptable substitute for saffron. Its distinctive flavor is a must for classic dishes such as paella and bouillabaisse. Try to use the real thing to get the intended result. However, turmeric or paprika might be used for the color that would be provided by saffron. Use turmeric sparingly as a saffron substitute since its acrid flavor can easily overwhelm the food.
Where to Buy Saffron
Saffron will be available at a well-stocked grocery store, but it is often not out on the open shelf where it might tempt thieves. It might be in a special locked cabinet in the spice area, or you will need to ask at the service desk.
It is best to buy saffron threads rather than ground saffron. One reason is that it is easier to detect counterfeits and know that you are getting the true saffron you are paying for. Powdered saffron is not as strong, tends to lose flavor, and is also easily adulterated with fillers and imitations.
Since so little saffron is needed, you will find ground saffron sold in packets of about 1/16 teaspoon, and threads equaling about 1/4 gram or 1/2 of a teaspoon. Yet, these seemingly small amounts will often flavor more than one dish.
You can also order saffron online, but you must be wary of any deals. If the price is far below that from other spice purveyors, it may not be authentic saffron.
Saffron threads will hold their maximum flavor for up to six months if you store them in an airtight container and keep the container in a cool, dark place. Like other herbs and spices, it's sensitive to light, so wrap the packet in foil to protect it even more. It won't spoil, but it will lose more and more of its flavor as it ages. If you are buying ground saffron, it should be stored in a similar fashion but you should use it as quickly as possible as it will already have lost some of its potency.
Health Benefits of Saffron
Remedies that date back over 4,000 years used saffron as one of the main ingredients. The spice was used to treat over 90 ailments, including fever, cramps, enlarged livers, and anxiety. It has also been used externally for bruises, rheumatism, and neuralgia.
Modern medical research is finding possible benefits for saffron extracts. Preliminary studies show specific preparations might be beneficial for the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, depression, menstrual discomfort, and premenstrual syndrome. Other uses are still being explored.
Hausenblas HA, Heekin K, et al. A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials Examining the Effectiveness of Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) on Psychological and Behavioral Outcomes. J Integr Med. 2015 Jul; 13(4): 231–240. doi:10.1016/S2095-4964(15)60176-5