It is considered the most expensive spice in the world, has been in medical and culinary use for thousands of years, and has even been imitated. Learn how to identify real saffron, what health benefits it has, how to store it, and also discover a particularly worthy recipe.
Imagine the Sisyphean life of the saffron pickers: They are required to skillfully separate the small scars (leaf tips) of the crocus flowers, which must be done in the early morning, and then collect, sort and weigh the delicate and fragile hairs. Certainly, it’s no easy job.
To produce one pound of saffron, it takes tens of hours and no less than 170,000 crocus flowers of a particular species, which bloom only once a year. This is why it is considered the most expensive spice in the world, known as the “King of Spices” or “Red Gold.”
The origin of the prestigious spice, with its unique flavor and color, is in the Kashmir region of northern India. From there it came to the Arab countries and from there, by merchants, to Europe. Its name comes from the word “zafaran,” which means yellow in Arabic.
Saffron has been known to mankind as a spice, as a perfume and as a medicinal plant for 3,000 years. In the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon it was used to banish evil spirits during childbirth; in Greece people breathed air with it and in the Middle Ages treated it as a love drug.
It is effective against constipation, liver disease, shortness of breath and eye infections.
As a herbal medicine, it has a reputation: Maimonides recommended it as a cure for constipation, and in the popular medicine of various Israeli communities they supported saffron infusions for the treatment of liver disease, colds, shortness of breath and increasing men’s strength. In addition, saffron is attributed to blood purification and vigor-boosting properties, probably due to quite a few nutritional components, such as vitamin C and vitamin A. It’s especially high in potassium and magnesium, phosphorus and calcium.
Because of its high price, saffron is often imitated and fake, sometimes, for example, consisting of painted corn hair. However, true saffron is characterized by long, intact and slightly spaced strands, slightly curled and one side thickened from the other, with a purplish hue and characteristic non-mimic scent. When the threads are rolled, a yellow color should appear. To be sure, you should purchase it from a trusted source and in small, transparent, well-sealed packages.
How to keep saffron fresh and fragrant
Saffron goes great in rice, fish, soups, vegetable stews like zucchini, potatoes and mushrooms, and also serves as a base for making sauces. It adds special flavor and aroma to the food as well as a bright yellow color. Combine it with Italian risotto and the stara liqueur produced in that country, Spanish paella, the French fish soup boyabez, and Moroccan, Turkish, Indian and Persian cuisine. At the same time, saffron also spices up desserts such as creme brulee, rice pudding, wine pears, sweet pastries, ice cream and chocolate.
Whatever the case, it’s important to keep the right dosage in seasoning — too much saffron will make the dish bitter. It is better in case of uncertainty to start with a small amount and add more as needed.
Before incorporating it into stews, it is recommended to soak the saffron threads in warm water (or milk, as in the recipe above), to release the flavors and color. In some recipes, the soaking water can also be poured into the stew. In the Persian kitchen, it is customary to grind the saffron before cooking with sugar. You can add the spice directly to the dish, or place it in a sealed bag and pull it out.
To preserve the saffron over time, store it in a dark, dry place, in a hermetically sealed vessel and at room temperature. To preserve the taste and aroma, it must be used within six months from the date of purchase. And now for the recipe:
Indian-style saffron rice: Nuratan Pilaf
Ingredients (for 4–5 servings):
2 cups of basmati rice
10 saffron threads, soaked in a glass of milk
4 tablespoons oil
6 nail units
6 cardboard backpacks
4 bay leaves
2–3 cinnamon sticks
3 cups of water (or one-third of a finger over the rice in a pot)
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 cups of vegetable pickles (peas, corn, red pepper, yellow or green beans)
Salt, pepper and turmeric to taste
1/2 an onion
Cashew nuts for decoration
- Rinse the rice and soak in water for half an hour, dry well and keep aside.
- In a deep frying pan heat oil over low heat, add the spices, bay leaves, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper and cloves, and fry for 2–3 minutes.
- Add the sugar to the pan and dissolve.
- Add water to the pan and bring to a boil, then add the rice and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes.
- When rice pockets can be seen and all the water has evaporated, add the vegetable stock.
- Add the saffron in milk, and with a wide fork, slowly mix the rice until it attains a saffron hue.
- Slice the onion into strips and fry with a little oil until browned.
- Serve the dish garnished with the blackened onion strips and cashew nuts.
Recipe courtesy of Rina Pushkarna, from the Tandoori restaurant chain.