Why is saffron so expensive and how to expand its flavors

In Iranian cuisine, the dizzying aroma of sweet saffron mingled with the warm, nutty scent of steamed rice is an age-old call to the ta...


In Iranian cuisine, the dizzying aroma of sweet saffron mingled with the warm, nutty scent of steamed rice is an age-old call to the table. Even though it is known as the most expensive spice in the world, saffron is ubiquitous in Persian cuisine and infuses soul into a wide range of dishes.

We can all welcome saffron into our kitchens frequently and without fear taking inspiration from Iranian home cooks, who use the spice regularly, economically and wisely. Well processed, a small pinch can brighten and flavor salty and sweet dishes and drinks.

The ancient Persians, among other ancient civilizations, cherished saffron for its healing, mood-enhancing and decorative virtues and, later, its culinary virtues. Since then, saffron has left its gastronomic mark across the world.

Harvesting saffron is extremely laborious, hence its high cost. Saffron comes from the Crocus sativus plant, which produces two flowers, each with three stigmas (saffron threads). The delicate flowers are harvested by hand in the fall and should be plucked within a few hours each morning before they wither. The stigmas are then picked by hand and dried. It takes around 200 flowers to produce 1 gram of saffron.

Fortunately, all it takes is a little saffron to flavor a dish. In fact, too much can make a meal bitter. In Iranian cuisine, whole threads are rarely used. Instead, to stretch the saffron and make its use financially feasible, cooks grind the threads with a small pinch of sugar or salt, which creates friction, to make a fine powder. This is usually done in a mortar and pestle, although larger amounts are often pulsed in a spice grinder and then stored in an airtight container for immediate use.

The ground saffron is then steeped in a process similar to brewing tea. Once the water boils, it is allowed to sit for two minutes so that its temperature drops slightly. A few spoonfuls are added to the ground saffron to bloom and bring out its flavor, color and fragrance. According to traditional Persian medicine, this process also activates the medicinal properties of saffron. Pouring boiling water over saffron has the opposite effect, burning the fragile spice. In Iranian folklore, it is said to kill the soul of saffron. Nobody wants to do this.

Saffron water can then be used immediately in recipes like salmon skewers or grilled chicken, or it can be covered and stored in the refrigerator for a few days without losing its potency. Avoid buying inexpensive bottled saffron water as it is likely adulterated with food coloring, turmeric, paprika, or safflower. No ingredient can replace saffron to replicate its rich, floral, sweet and earthy flavor, intoxicating aroma and warm sunset hue.

Saffron – and the ritual of its preparation – respects tradition, history and, most importantly, the love, care, and labor that go into its harvest. So when you pour your saffron water into your dish, make sure that there isn’t a single grain of liquid gold clinging to the sides of the bowl. If there is, sprinkle a little more water, stir it and add it to the dish. Or, send it back as a drink, with a toast to your health – and the soul of saffron.

Receipts: Salmon skewers with saffron | Joojeh Kabab ba Holu (chicken skewers with saffron and peaches)

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Newsrust - US Top News: Why is saffron so expensive and how to expand its flavors
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