Ingredient Spotlight: Saffron

Did you know that it takes almost 70,000 crocus flowers to produce just one pound of dried saffron, all of which have to be harvested by hand just as the flower is opening? No wonder it’s the most expensive spice in the cupboard.

This spice is responsible for that distinctive bright yellow color of Italian risotto milanese, French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, and Indian biryanis. It also has a very subtle flavor and aroma - somewhat spicy, somewhat floral. Like truffles, some people find saffron completely intoxicating and addictive.

Saffron is the dried orange-red stigmas of a particular kind of crocus. When buying saffron, look for threads that are uniformly long and have an eye-popping color. Don’t bother with broken saffron, saffron powder, or threads that look dull and dusty. It’s not worth the cost. And this is definitely one of those spices where it’s worth it to pay more. So called “bargain” saffron is probably very old or mixed with saffron styles (another part of the crocus) or marigold flowers.

You only need a few threads to season and color an entire dish. Add them directly to a dish or steep the threads in a bit of the cooking liquid.

If you’re going for authenticity in dishes like paella and bouillabaisse, you’ve got to have saffron. There’s really no substitute. But if you aren’t so worried about exact replication and just want to approximate the yellow glow without spending a fortune, you can substitute turmeric.

What do you think of this spice?

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(Image: Flickr member courtneybolton licensed under Creative Commons)