Saffron: Everything You Need To Know
Saffron, the spice that makes food a stunning golden color, adds that amazing signature scent and flavor is the most expensive spice in the world. It’s even more expensive than gold. (Yep, you read that correctly) If you’re wondering why, stay with me and we’ll get to that later.
You might be curious why people bother to use it, if it's that expensive. Well, the reason is that in cooking, you only need the smallest amount of saffron to add a world of flavor, color and aroma to your dish. It’s a truly unique spice that is so delicious and beautiful and it also comes with many health benefits.
Do you want to learn more about saffron? Then you’ve come to the right place. In this piece we’ll look at all aspects of saffron – its origin and history, health benefits, how saffron is grown and cultivated, how to find good quality saffron, how to use saffron at home and more. Read on for everything you need to know about saffron…
The health benefits of saffron
Saffron is very rich in antioxidants and most of the claimed health benefits of saffron are related to this fact. The three main active antioxidants in saffron are called crocin, picrocrocin and safranal.
As you know already, antioxidants are great for our bodies. They fight against oxidative stress and free radicals in the body and because both of these things play a big role in the development of cancer and heart disease, including saffron in your diet may help in the prevention of these diseases. The antioxidants in saffron also also help protect your nervous system. Crocin (the compound that gives saffron its distinct red colour) acts as an anti-inflammatory and reduces oxidative stress in the brain thus helping to fight against conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
Other health benefits of saffron include the following:
- Saffron can improve your mood. Saffron extract increases dopamine levels in the brain and studies have shown that 30mg of saffron each day can have the same effect as prescription drugs for treating mild-to-moderate depression, but without causing any side effects.
- Saffron can help with PMS symptoms. Studies show that taking 30mg of saffron per day is more effective than a placebo for treating symptoms of PMS. Even just smelling saffron for 20 minutes has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress hormones in women’s bodies. Isn't that amazing?
- Saffron can help you lose weight. There’s evidence to show that saffron can help reduce your appetite which can lead to weight loss. Studies show that people who take saffron supplements feel fuller, snack less and lose weight, fat and inches from their body faster compared to a control group taking a placebo. This could be because saffron improves your mood too and when you’re in a good mood, you tend to eat less and only eat when you’re hungry – not for comfort.
Is saffron safe for everyone?
The amount of saffron you would use when cooking appears to be safe for humans to enjoy without any concerns. When you make a big dish of Paella or risotto with saffron, you would only use a very small amount of saffron.
When it comes to supplements, 1.5g of saffron per day is considered safe, but as little as 30mg is enough to reap the health benefits. High doses of 5g or more can be toxic and should be avoided by everyone.
What about pregnant and breastfeeding women? Can they consume saffron? Well, the truth is, there has not been enough research done on this subject, but it is advised that pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid saffron supplements or consuming too much saffron. In saying this, it is hard to consume too much saffron in its pure form, as only a small amount is needed in cooking, but high strength saffron supplements can have serious side effects for pregnant women and should be avoided.
The nutritional value of saffron
As you now already know, saffron is a spice so it is mainly used for its flavor and not for its nutritional content. If you are interested in nutrition though, you can find the components of dried saffron in approximate percentages below:
- 65% carbohydrates
- 6% fat
- 11% protein
Dried saffron still contains water too. The chemical element manganese is also present but the other micronutrients in saffron are negligible.
The meaning behind the name
The nickname ‘Red Gold’ was coined for saffron because of the beautiful dark red color of dried saffron threads and of course, due to saffron being the most expensive and delicate spice in the world.
The name saffron comes from the Arabic word “Zafaran”. Zafaran means yellow and while pure saffron is dark red, when you add it to your food it gives it a mild buttery yellow color- both aesthetic and appetising!
The origin & history of saffron
Not only is it a delicious spice, it's definitely an interesting one to learn about. The origin of saffron is still a bit of a mystery but it’s believed that it originated from Iran. Other possible origins may be ancient Persia, Greece and Mesopotamia.
It’s likely that humans bred the wild precursor of saffron to have abnormally long stigmas which is what the saffron crocus flowers we treasure today have.
Saffron has been used for thousands of years in different cultures for beauty, health and culinary purposes and traces of saffron-based pigments have even been found in prehistoric cave-art that’s 50,000 years old!
Some interesting historic uses include Cleopatra taking saffron-infused milky baths before encounters with men, Greeks and Romans using saffron as a perfume and to mask unpleasant scents and threads of saffron being woven into royal carpets and funeral shrouds in ancient Persia. Although bathing in saffron sounds amazing, we’ll save some money and stick to cooking with it!
Why is saffron so expensive?
Yep this one has definitely been googled ..a lot. Saffron is an expensive spice – actually, the most expensive spice – but a little goes a very long way and the unique taste and beautiful color is worth the investment.
So, what is the reason behind saffron being the most expensive spice in the world?
There are a few reasons that add to the high price tag of good quality saffron:
- Harvesting saffron requires a lot of physical labour from very skilled workers. Saffron is just the stigma from the saffron crocus flowers and these need to be separated from the flowers by hand before being dried and packaged up for selling.
- Each flower only has three stigmas that will become three saffron threads when dried. This means the yield per flower is very low and you need lots of workers to get a small amount of saffron.
Saffron crocus flowers only bloom for a short period each year so the time for harvest is limited. It’s also best to pick the saffron very early in the morning which adds another complication that makes the end product more expensive.
A lot of work, right? These three aspects make the whole saffron cultivation process time consuming and time sensitive as well as skill-specific which is why saffron is so expensive to buy.
Where does saffron grow?
More than 90% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran where the labor costs are cheaper but saffron is also grown in other locations, including Afghanistan, India, Morocco and even in the U.S. and in European countries too.
You might expect saffron flowers to need warm weather, but the saffron crocus flowers are actually surprisingly robust. The saffron flowers are quite resilient and can be grown in cold weather conditions if they’re put in a climate-controlled greenhouse, which means you can grow it in most places with the right equipment. The saffron crocus flowers do need some sunshine though!
How to tell the quality of saffron
Like in many industries there are dishonest sellers in the saffron industry and unfortunately, there are people out there selling fake saffron or low quality saffron mixed with other additives to make more profit for themselves. How can you tell if the saffron you have bought or want to buy is the real deal? How do you spot fake saffron?
After all this talk about ‘Red Gold’ you know that you definitely don’t want to risk buying bogus saffron. Here’s how you make sure that doesn't happen. There are a few things to look for when buying saffron – a deep red color and a good length of the threads. Saffron usually comes in very small packets or jars. Be wary of large packets sold at cheap prices. If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Fake or altered saffron could contain harmful fillers and colorings and you have no way of knowing what these are since they would not be listed as ingredients.
Saffron should feel dry to touch. If it’s damp, then it’s likely that water has been added to add weight to the product to make it look like there’s more than there is. If you are familiar with high quality saffron from consuming it before, you might be able to tell by just smelling the product or tasting a small amount to see if it’s genuine saffron.
Where can you buy high quality saffron?
Saffron is sold in many shops and places but you want to find a reputable seller that you can trust to provide you with high quality saffron for the price that you are paying. Here is a list of places where you can purchase high quality saffron:
- Ayoub’s Dried Fruit & Nuts: Ayoub’s has been in the industry for a long time and has been sourcing high quality saffron from the same farm for over 10 years to ensure quality consistency. Ayoub’s saffron is Sargol saffron which is the most premium type, made just from the top part of the saffron threads that has the most flavor and color. In the unlikely event that you’re unhappy with your saffron from Ayoub’s, you can return it for a full refund, no questions asked.
- Amazon: Yes, Amazon sells pretty much anything, and you can even buy good quality saffron from there. Just look out for the signs of good quality saffron and ask questions about origin and certification details if in doubt before ordering. This is where customer reviews come in handy!
- Whole Foods: A good supermarket alternative to buy saffron from is Whole Foods. They stock a few different options for different regions.
- Your local ethnic store: Persian, Italian or Spanish stores are great options for sourcing good quality saffron as it is a spice deeply ingrained in their culture. In a local shop, you can chat to the owners about origin and maybe even taste the saffron before buying.
Saffron is usually sold in very small packages as people only use a tiny amount when cooking at home. It’s often packaged in foil to protect it from light and air but this sachet is often placed in a glass jar too.
How to use saffron at home
There are so many different ways to use saffron at home in your kitchen. Which cuisine comes to mind when I mention saffron to you? Maybe a Spanish Paella or a delicious Italian risotto? Or a French Bouillabaisse, Indian dishes like Biriyani or simple saffron rice? There are so many wonderful dishes that celebrate the unique flavor, aroma and color of saffron.
When you’re making meals like some of the ones mentioned above, you generally add the saffron to the stock before adding it to the dish. For rice dishes, you often add it to the cooking liquid to let the rice absorb the flavor as it cooks.
There are other ways that you can enjoy saffron too. Have you ever had saffron tea? It’s really simple to make yourself at home and is said to be a mood-lifting drink thanks to saffron increasing dopamine levels in your brain. To make saffron tea, steep 4-5 good quality saffron threads in some water for 5 minutes. You can add any flavor that you like – why not try cinnamon or a bit of honey for sweetness? You can also add saffron to other teas like green tea for even more health benefits.
Saffron also works wonderfully in baked goods like buns and breads, both sweet and savory. In Sweden, it's a common thing to make sweet saffron buns in the winter that are full of saffron flavor beautifully golden from the saffron too. You could add saffron to pretty much any bake or bread – just let it steep in any liquid that you’re using first before adding the saffron to your other ingredients.
Saffron will not release its flavor and aroma in fat alone so don’t try to add it to oil or other fats. You need to put saffron in a warm liquid for it to release all its color, scent and taste.
Are there any substitutes for saffron?
The short answer is no, there are not any substitutions for saffron. Saffron has a flavor that’s truly unique and this can not be replicated by other spices or ingredients. If you’re only looking for the color of saffron, you can use things like turmeric or paprika but there is nothing that can copy or imitate the flavor or aroma of saffron.
How to store saffron at home
If you're spending money on saffron, you want to make sure you're storing it properly, right? Once you have purchased your high quality saffron, you want to make sure the flavor, aroma and all the goodness remain. Saffron is best stored in an airtight container and in the dark, away from light that can damage the spice. A kitchen drawer or a pantry with solid doors is the perfect place to store your saffron at home. Saffron often comes in an airtight container when you buy it so you can just use this in your own kitchen too.
Stored correctly, like described above, saffron can last as long as two years at home. It’s best to consume it within six months though and the taste will faint with time so fresher is better.
A quick and easy saffron rice recipe
Saffron rice is a really easy way to cook with saffron and luckily you can put rice with pretty much anything! Saffron rice is popular in many cultures and the recipes and ingredients vary but the base is very similar.
For a simple saffron rice side dish, you’ll need the following ingredients:
- 400g white basmati rice,
- 2-3 tablespoons of butter
- a pinch of high quality saffron
- 500 ml stock (vegetable or chicken), prepared and hot
- 300 ml water, boiled
Wash the rice as usual and let it soak in cold water for half an hour before draining. Add butter to a frying pan and let melt over a medium heat. Steep the saffron threads in some hot water for a few minutes. Drain the rice and add to the pan. Stir through the butter. Add the saffron, the water and stock to the rice and cook until the water has absorbed. Season and serve.
You can experiment with flavors by adding fried onions, bay leaves, lemon juice, vegetables or meats… the possibilities are endless.
And that’s everything you need to know about saffron
That’s our summary of all things saffron. It’s a truly one of a kind spice that can add so much flavor and color to your meals as well as health benefits. We hope you’ve been inspired to give saffron a go if you haven’t already, or for those who have perhaps re-stock to cook or bake some of your favorite recipes? When shopping for saffron from Ayoub’s Dried Fruit & Nuts, you can trust that you’ll get the best quality saffron and that the quality will always be consistent.