Saffron has the reputation of being the most expensive spice by weight in the world. Why? Because saffron, which is the stigma (the pollen-receiving part) of a little purple perennial crocus flower, must be gathered by hand during a harvest that lasts just a couple of weeks in the fall, and there are only three stigmas per blossom. It takes about 75,000 flowers to yield a pound of saffron.
How to use it: Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way. A pinch (about 20 threads) is usually all it takes to impart saffron’s distinctive yellow color and vaguely metallic, dried alfalfa hay and bittersweet wildflower-honey flavor. A key ingredient in bouillabaisse and paella, it’s especially delicious with seafood, tomatoes, fennel, and lamb.
Liquid helps draw out the flavor and color from saffron, so crumble it directly into broths, sauces, or soups. If using in something less fluid, let it steep in a little hot water for a few minutes first and add the water and saffron to the dish. You can also infuse oil with saffron, as in the Saffron Croutons on p. 42, but the flavor and color won’t come though as well as they do in water.
How to buy & store it: Spain and India are renowned for their saffron, but Iran, Greece, Morocco, and Italy harvest saffron, too. The purest saffron consists of all dark red-orange stigmas about 1/2 inch long. This is sometimes referred to as coupé or cut saffron because the lighter yellow bottom part of the stigma (the style) is removed. It’s acceptable for a batch of saffron to have a very short bit of yellow at the base of some of the threads, but watch out for saffron that contains a lot of long yellow threads. These are styles and stamen (the pollen-bearing part of the flower), and they add weight but little flavor.
It’s best to purchase small quantities of whole saffron threads, both for freshness and cost benefits. The threads should be dry and brittle. Stored in a sealed container in a dark place, they should last a couple of years before the flavor starts to diminish.
Avoid ground saffron because it is too easily cut with additives such as turmeric, paprika, or safflower. Also beware the small pompom-like blossoms of the safflower, which may be sold as saffron—they impart a little color but no flavor to food.