Saffron is one of the few things in this world that actually is worth its weight in gold. A product of the crocus flower, saffron adds pungent and aromatic flavor to foods, as well as a beautiful golden color. It's native to Asia Minor where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Saffron is used not only in cooking and beverages but in medicines, perfumes, and dyes.
The spice's botanical name is crocus sativus. It's also sometimes called safran, azafran or zafferano, depending on the region.
Saffron is readily available in most large grocery stores and specialty markets. Due to its value, it may be stocked in a locked or secured area. If you don't see any on the shelf, ask the manager. You can also order it online. Most recipes call for very little saffron, so you'll often find it sold in packets of 1/16 of a teaspoon or so, and in threads equaling about 1/4 gram or 1/2 a teaspoon.
What Does Saffron Taste Like?
Saffron imparts a somewhat earthy taste that's been described as pungent or even fruity. The exact flavor eludes description, which only lends to the saffron's mystique.
Forms of Saffron
Saffron is available in ground form as well as in threads called whole stigmas. Threads are thin and red or orange-red. Your best bet is to go with the threads. They retain their flavor longer, and you can also be sure that you've purchased pure saffron — there's nothing else mixed in with the powder. Ground saffron is easily adulterated with fillers and imitations. It's not as strong. It tends to lose its flavor.
Always choose threads or powder from a reputable distributor. Saffron should be packaged in foil to protect it from air and light. Bulk saffron is often sold in small wooden boxes.
Saffron will hold its maximum flavor for up to six months if you store it in an airtight container and keep it 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.
The Price of Saffron
Saffron is literally the most expensive spice in the world. It's estimated that 14,000 stigmas produce only one ounce of saffron threads. These threads can cost up to $50 per 1/4-ounce due to the labor-intensive process of harvesting them, which is still done by hand just as it was thousands of years ago. Luckily, a little bit goes a long way, so you can buy enough saffron for a number of meals for under $10, but if you find it available at bargain-basement prices, it's probably not the real deal.
Turmeric can be substituted for saffron in many recipes, but you'll lose a great deal of flavor. Paprika can be used to add a similar color, but again, you'll lose the remarkable flavor of saffron.