Saffron: the Gold of the Spices

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spanish saffron
Saffron from La Mancha, Spain

Saffron is considered the most expensive spice in the world, mainly because it requires a lot of labor since its collection and processing are necessarily manual and done in a very short period of time every year, coinciding with the blooming of the flowers from which it comes. Around 150 flowers are required to grow, harvest, prune and toast to get 1 gram of dried saffron threads.

Although you could conclude that it is not worth trying, the cost per serving is not as expensive as you think, so it is worth knowing its characteristics and benefits in both traditional and avant-garde cuisine.

Saffron Features in Cooking

In cooking, there are three main parameters that define the use of saffron:

  • Color, gives food the characteristic clean, bright orange-yellow color, due to the presence of “crocin” molecule.
  • Aroma, reminiscent of hay, flowers, wood, ... due to the presence of some 28 volatile compounds, of which the most prominent is "safranal".
  • Flavor, a pungent mix of bitter and sweet, but also spicy, derived mainly from the "picrocrocin" molecule.

The above compounds can be measured in chemical analysis, allowing saffron from different origins and presentations to be compared.

Origin of the Saffron

Saffron is the thread-like stigma (part of a plant's female reproductive organ) located within the flower of the Crocus Sativus, a small fall-flowering perennial plant (usually up to 5 years) grown in climates with warm and dry summers preceded by rainy springs. Autumn rain just before flowering also increases crocus production.

saffron flower
Saffron flower

The most consensual version of its origin locates it in Iran, where it could have been introduced in Europe by the Greek empire and in the rest of Asia by the Assyrian and Persian empires (Wikipedia). It appears cited in The Iliad and The Bible.

Today, Iran accounts for about 90% of world production, followed by Spain and Kashmir (India).

Saffron Production in Spain

The Arabs were responsible for the expansion throughout the Spanish peninsula. Today it is grown mainly in the La Mancha region, where it has become the engine of social relations through neighborhood ties, cooperation, and solidarity, derived from the need for all the hands of the villagers during the harvest. For centuries, La Mancha producers have implemented a simple technology, which in essence has remained unchanged until today.

The Crocus sativus plant lasts 5 years, of which the first gives no yield, and little the last. They bloom once a year in late October.

The flowers are collected during the first hours of the day, as they bloom. They are pruned that same day, keeping only the stigmas (with a small portion of style), all after removing dust or dirt.

Within 12 hours after harvest, the strands are roasted at a temperature between 60º - 80º Celsius, to eliminate humidity and preserve them for longer. As in most cases, the production is really small in size, charcoal from vine shoots (since they share the same harvest time) or gas stoves are used for this task.

Saffron flower prunning

Once back to room temperature, the saffron is stored in sealed airtight containers and kept away from light and in a cool environment. Before packing, it is sorted based on strand length, style length (yellow strand section), and color.

La Mancha Saffron PDO

To maintain high-quality standards, La Mancha producers founded the Control Board of La Mancha Saffron Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which establishes the specific requirements for production and manufacturing, as well as the physicochemical conditions and organoleptic characteristics (color, aroma, and flavor) that all saffron sold under this label must comply. An independent and impartial monitoring agency conducts an annual verification of compliance by producers.

Look for these logos on the saffron packaging:

la mancha saffron pdo label
La Mancha Saffron PDO label

What saffron to buy?

Some tips before buying:

  • Choose brands labeled with La Mancha PDO, which is the best guarantee of excellence.
  • If you cannot find it, check that “Product of Spain” is printed on the packet, jar or tin, to make sure it is grown in Spain (probably in La Mancha, but not under the PDO guidance).
  • Choose threads before ground saffron. The latter is the result of broken strands or residual dust from handling them.
  • Buy saffron from other sources ;-).

How to cook with saffron

It doesn't take too much saffron to get the special color, flavor, and aroma that it adds to any recipe, hot or cold. For example, for a paella, you only need 8 to 10 strands per serving, which is barely 0.05 grams.

There are basically three methods:

  • Infuse in water: crush the strands with a mortar and pestle, or on folded paper with a spoon. Add hot water (2-3 tablespoons) and let it set for a few minutes. Add the infusion to the rest of the ingredients. Ideal for rice and recipes rich in liquid.
  • Grind and add directly. Crush as above and add to marinades, stews, purees, sauces, batters, ...
  • Mix strands and water in a vacuum bag, infuse at 65ºC for 4-5 hours. Keep refrigerated (up to 20 days) or freeze to use as needed. Ideal for professional uses or more technical recipes.

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