Saffron, a spice that is literally and figuratively worth its weight in gold. Learn to use it in other ways than just rice!

Saffron is one of the most valuable and also the most expensive spices in the world.

The tiny red threads that give dishes a yellow tinge are literally legendary.

Why is it so expensive?

How to prepare the most delicious saffron rice?

And does it really have miraculous healing effects?

Discover with us the secret of this precious spice, but also medicine and dye.

What is saffron?

Saffron, unlike many other spices, is not a seed, root or fruit. They are dried flower heads of a small plant called crocus sativus. It is one of the oldest, most valuable and most expensive spices in the world, often called red gold. It is mainly used in Arabic, Indian, Spanish, Italian and French cuisine.

In connection with saffron, many of us also remember sayings like “there was a lot like saffron”, or “there was not much like saffron” or “to save with something like saffron”. All these folk sayings are proof of how rare a spice saffron was for our ancestors and how little and carefully it was used.

Fresh saffron on a plate.

Whole saffron vs. ground saffron

This spice can be purchased in two forms, whole and ground. If possible, always prefer whole saffron. With ground saffron, it is much easier to punch it, and its taste and smell are also not so intense. If you need ground saffron for cooking, grind or crush it with a mortar and pestle just before use.

Ground saffron in a wooden bowl.

What does saffron taste like?

We all know about saffron, that it colors food in a golden color. But how does it taste? Saffron is very delicate and fragrant. The slightly sweet taste is very specific, it is difficult to describe, but you can immediately recognize saffron in dishes. On the other hand, saffron that tastes bitter, metallic, or like “plastic” is often just a cheap imitation of this unique spice.

How to recognize true saffron?

Due to the high price of this spice, its “punching” has been associated with saffron since ancient times. True saffron is approximately 2-3 centimeters long red or purplish-brown threads or fibers that slightly widen at one end. It should not contain any yellow flower stamens. When you smell it, it smells floral, and when you gently rub it between your fingers, it turns them yellow.

False saffron

As with the cheaper variant of saffron, you can sometimes come across fake or even Turkish saffron, which does not come from the sown saffron. These are mostly dried crown slices of a thistle-like plant called safflower (Carthamus tinctorius).

Another plant that was often mixed with true saffron in the past was calendula (Calendula officinali), specifically its yellow or orange petals. Ground saffron is relatively easy to fake by mixing in turmeric or paprika.

A plate with petals of safflower, which is often mistaken for saffron.

Why is saffron so expensive?

In order to better understand the high price of this spice, it is necessary to get closer to its acquisition. Saffron only blooms for one week a year, usually in autumn, and each saffron flower produces only two to three thread-like spikes. Due to their fragility, the heads must be collected by hand, in the morning when the flowers are still closed. The bumblebees must then be manually separated from the rest of the flower and dried.

How many saffron flowers are needed for 1 kg of spice?

Considering how tiny and light the flower heads are, it is said that approximately 150,000 flowers are needed for one kilogram of spice.

Hand picking saffron into a basket.

Origin and history

Although its origins are still somewhat unclear, it is believed that saffron was first cultivated in Greece during the Bronze Age. Today, this spice is grown mainly in Iran, Iranian saffron is a recognized term in world cuisine. In addition, it is also grown in India, Greece, Morocco, Afghanistan, Spain and Italy.

You will learn a few interesting facts about the production of the world-famous Iranian saffron through this video.

This is the World’s Most Expensive Spice | National Geographic

An interesting fact is that the word saffron sounds very similar in many languages of the world. It is believed to be derived from the Persian za’faran, or yellow. If you think that it is because of the yellow color that saffron gives to dishes, it is worth clarifying that ancient civilizations used saffron primarily as a dye, not as a spice.

What is saffron used for?

One of the great advantages of saffron is that it is very easy to add to the diet. To cook with saffron, you must first grind the saffron fibers in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle.

The resulting red powder can then be mixed with water, butter or oil and added to stews, broths, sauces, sweet creams and, of course, rice. You usually don’t need more than the proverbial pinch of it in recipes.

  • A very popular dish is saffron risotto. When to add saffron to risotto? Simply add it to the broth to cover the fried onions and rice. There are many risotto recipes that you can make special with saffron.

  • In the dry months, you can also use saffron to light up various types of soups. You will appreciate saffron the most when preparing creamy soups , but it can also be added to classic broths.

  • Do you bake all kinds of cakes or desserts at home? Use saffron when making cake creams . It will give them not only a beautiful yellow color, but also an original taste and aroma. Last but not least, you can of course also add saffron to the dough.

  • Simply, saffron can also be used in the production of various dips or homemade mayonnaise, to which it gives a bright yellow color and a delicious taste.

  • A few sprigs of saffron can easily be added to black tea as well. The resulting drink can be drunk hot or cold. Another option is the preparation of saffron milk.
Plate with yellow saffron risotto.

How much saffron for rice?

Most people associate saffron with coloring and flavoring rice. For this purpose, saffron is used not only in many countries of the Middle East, but also in the preparation of the Spanish national dish paella. In recipes, the amount of saffron is often stated somewhat “inaccurately”, using words like a pinch, a small amount or a little. In general, you will need 4-5 sprigs of dried saffron for 200 grams of rice, or approximately half a teaspoon after grinding.

Saffron water

In Asian cuisines, saffron is most often added to dishes in the form of saffron water or infusion. Its production is very simple, and the taste and aroma of saffron develop better in dishes. Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind two teaspoons of saffron threads together with a sugar cube or a pinch of coarse salt into a powder. Then add a quarter cup of warm water and let cool. You can use this radiant elixir in rice, steamed vegetable dishes and desserts.

Preparation of saffron water.

How to store saffron?

Store saffron spice in a cool, dry, dark place. It can be stored for up to two years, but remember that it has the most flavor and aroma in the first six months after harvest. For storage, use as small an airtight container as possible so that there is not too much air in it. Do not put saffron in the refrigerator, it could get wet there, which would negatively affect its quality.

What to replace saffron with?

Due to the specificity and uniqueness of saffron, it is very difficult to replace it with something else in dishes. If you only want to add a yellow color to the dish, you can get it by adding turmeric. However, the taste of the dish will be completely different.

Medicinal effects of saffron

Saffron has been revered and used for its healing properties since ancient times. For example, in Iran they ate saffron to increase libido, improve mood and memory. What scientifically confirmed effects does the consumption of saffron have on our organism?

  • A powerful antioxidant – saffron contains a number of plant compounds. These act as antioxidants, or molecules that protect cells from free radicals and oxidative stress. Important saffron antioxidants include crocin, crocetin, safranal and kaempferol.
    • Crocin and crocetin are carotenoid pigments that are responsible for the red color of saffron. Both compounds have antidepressant effects, protect brain cells from gradual damage and improve inflammatory processes.
    • Safranal gives saffron its distinctive flavor and aroma. Research shows that it can help improve mood, memory and learning ability, as well as protect brain cells from oxidative stress.
    • Kaempferol is found in saffron petals. This compound is associated with, for example, reduced inflammation, anti-cancer properties and antidepressant effects.

  • Improves mood and relieves symptoms of depression – saffron is sometimes called the spice of the sun. This is not only because of its bold color, but also because it can help improve your mood. Studies confirm that saffron dietary supplements are significantly more effective than placebo in treating symptoms of mild to moderate depression.

  • Anti-cancer effects – the high content of antioxidants helps to neutralize harmful free radicals. Free radical damage is linked to chronic diseases such as cancer. In test-tube studies, saffron and its compounds have been shown to selectively kill colon cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. This effect also applies to cancer cells of the skin, bone marrow, prostate, lung, breast and cervix.

  • Relieves the symptoms of PMS – premenstrual syndrome describes the physical, emotional and psychological symptoms occurring before the start of menstruation. Studies show that saffron can help treat unpleasant PMS symptoms such as irritability, headaches, and anxiety.

  • Aphrodisiac – studies have shown that saffron may have aphrodisiac properties, especially in people taking antidepressants.

  • Reduces heart disease risk factors – Animal and test-tube studies suggest that saffron’s antioxidant properties can lower blood cholesterol levels and prevent clogging of blood vessels and arteries.

  • Improves memory in patients with Alzheimer’s disease – the antioxidant properties of saffron have a positive effect on cognitive abilities in adults with Alzheimer’s disease.

  • It can improve vision in adults with age-related macular degeneration

  • Reduces appetite and aids weight loss

Nutritional values, vitamins and minerals in saffron

Saffron, like other spices, contains many valuable substances. The tables show values for one teaspoon or 0.7 grams of saffron.

Calorie Proteins Fats Carbohydrates Fiber
2.17 kcal 0.08 g 0.041 g 0.458 g 0.027 g

Among minerals, saffron is especially rich in magnesium, manganese and selenium.

Potassium Phosphorus Magnesium Manganese Selenium Calcium Iron
12 mg 1.76 mg 1.85 mg 0.199 mg 0.039 0.777 mg 0.078 mg

In addition, it also contains vitamin C and some B vitamins.

Vitamin B1 Vitamin B2 Vitamin B3 Vitamin B6 Vitamin C Calcium Iron
0.001 mg 0.002 mg 0.01 mg 0.007 mg 0.566 mg 0.777 mg 0.078 mg

Another use of saffron

Today, saffron is mainly used in the kitchen, but in the past this was far from the case. For many centuries, saffron was a prized raw material for dyeing fabrics and was also used to make yellow artistic pigments that were used in the fine arts as well as for book illumination.

Today, you can also find saffron in various cosmetic products, especially creams and other skin preparations, as well as in food supplements.

Growing saffron

Saffron belongs to the iris plant family. It is grown from tubers, bulbs, similar to tulips or daffodils. They wake up in September and shoots grow out of the ground. After the emerald green, threadlike leaves grow, a beautiful purple flower appears, from which the spice is obtained.

Two to three red threads are part of the female structure of the flower. The collection of flowers usually takes place at the turn of October and November. Finally, the saffron grows bulbs in late spring, dries up, and new plants grow from the new bulbs next year.

Blooming saffron sown.

The plant requires relatively good soil and a sunny place. Tubers are very susceptible to overwatering. Saffron can be grown by various methods, with the main difference being between annual and perennial cultivation. Annual means that the bulbs are dug up and transplanted into different soil each year. Perennial cultivation means keeping the bulbs for 3 to 5 years in the same soil without moving them.

Growing your own saffron

In Czech, saffron is sometimes called crocus after its Latin name Crocus sativus. We can often see crocuses blooming in gardens in the spring months. However, in this case, we are talking about other types of saffron, especially spring or white-flowered saffron, not seeded saffron. But even that can be grown at home with a little patience.

Milan & Ondra

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