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Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Saffron

Sophia Pappas

The world’s most expensive spice can be an everyday ingredient — if you know how to use it

“Our biggest challenge is to get people to use it,” Ethan Frisch, the co-founder and co-owner of the spice company Burlap & Barrel, says about saffron. “They think it’s so valuable they almost don’t want to cook with it.”

The world’s most expensive spice is many things: an irreplaceable staple of various cuisines, the focal point of a multibillion-dollar industry, a hot topic in the realm of geopolitics, a victim of fraudulent trading. But it’s also an ingredient that’s been used in everyday cooking for as long as it’s been cultivated. There is, in other words, a lot to say about saffron, so let’s get started.

What is saffron?

Saffron comes from the stigmas of the purple Crocus sativus flower, also known as the saffron crocus because of its prized crimson threads. The trumpet-shaped stigmas are long and deep red, and typically have orange and yellow hues near their base. The saffron crocus typically appears six to eight weeks after planting, and produces up to three stigmas once it blooms.

Where does saffron grow?

The majority of saffron production takes place in warm Mediterranean and semiarid climates, spanning from Spain to Kashmir. Other major producers include Afghanistan, Morocco, and Greece. There are also micro producers loosely scattered around the United States, such as Cyprus Saffron in central Washington and Calabash Gardens in Vermont; the Pennsylvania Dutch even have a long-held tradition of cultivating saffron in their communities. But regardless of attempts to diversify the global saffron market, the world’s leading producer is indisputably Iran, which controls about 85 percent of the entire industry, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association.

Where did saffron originate?

Ancient foods like saffron are inevitably claimed by various cultures. And because much of the world’s saffron grows in Greater Khorasan, the historical region that straddles eastern Iran and Afghanistan, it’s commonly believed that its warm, fertile land is also the spice’s birthplace, especially by those who also have roots there.

“Growing up Iranian, I always noticed so much pride around saffron,” says Omid Roustaei, the creator behind Iranian food blog the Caspian Chef. “And because of Iran’s role as a major producer, we were always told it originated there. But, of course, today’s borders are more defined than before.”

As Roustaei points out, saffron’s regional presence predates modern borders. “From the research I’ve done, I can say with some certainty that it originated in the area that includes modern-day Iran, but we can’t pinpoint exactly where saffron originated,” says Naz Deravian, a food writer and the author of Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories. “It’s the Sumerians that appear to be the first civilizations that we can speak of that were using saffron.”

“If you ask my 80-something-year-old uncle, he will tell you Alexander the Great brought saffron to Greece after visiting ancient Persia and seeing people drink saffron tea and smear its dyes on their faces,” says Mohammad Salehi, the CEO and co-founder of Heray Spice Saffron, a saffron farmers co-op in Afghanistan.

“But some Afghans will say that it was the Greeks who actually brought saffron to the region,” he continues. “In those times, explorers wanted to conquer different parts of the world and build statues of their leaders, or maybe bring parts of their agriculture to new regions. So the Greeks would come to Persia and cultivate fields of saffron.”

Regardless of which theory we choose to believe, evidence of saffron’s cultivation dates back several millennia to ancient Assyria. The earliest evidence of saffron cultivation is a botanical reference compiled under King Ashurbanipal of Assyria from the seventh century BCE. It’s the Phoenicians who receive credit for spreading saffron throughout the Mediterranean during the classical Greco-Roman period between the eighth century BCE and fifth century CE.

How is saffron harvested?

The saffron crocus is harvested in the fall. Its purple flowers are cut off from their stems in the morning, ideally on a bright, sunny day when the crocus is fully open. From there, the stigmas are individually plucked by hand, making the entire process laborious and time-consuming. Because the stigmas are so fragile, there is currently no mechanical alternative to harvesting saffron that doesn’t risk damaging the threads. Once they’ve been collected, they are tested for quality, examined for sanitation, and gently dried before packaging and shipping.

The harvesting process is what makes saffron so expensive. For context, it takes 4,000 flowers to produce one ounce of saffron powder. The price per ounce can vary depending on quality, but some saffron varieties cost over $10,000 per kilogram.

How many kinds of saffron exist?

Although all saffron comes from the Crocus sativus, it is sold in different grades.

“There are varying qualities of saffron threads, starting at the base of the stigma with a pale yellow that turns into a burnt orange before becoming a brilliant crimson red at the top,” says Deravian. “The red part is the negin, which means ‘jewel’ in Farsi.”

Negin is highly sought after, and sold in grades that vary in quality and price. They include sargol, super negin, and pushal. Sargol, which is at the very tip of the stigma, is an extra-deep red; its threads are small, fragile, and aromatic. Super negin refers to the darker red portion of the negin and encompasses the sargol; it is the priciest and rarest type of saffron. Pushal is a mixture of both the red and yellow parts of the stigma, and also the cheapest and most common grade of saffron available, since the darker, more intensely red strands are believed to be higher quality and to have more potent aromas and flavor.

“Cooks and chefs solely want the super negin and sargol. But as a farmer, I view saffron from a technical standpoint,” says Salehi. “We determine saffron’s quality based on three elements: crocin, safranal, and picrocrocin. We measure these elements in a lab prior to packaging to determine accuracy and quality of product.”

The first element, crocin, refers to the level of redness of saffron, while safranal and picrocrocin are the chemicals responsible for saffron’s aroma and flavor, respectively. Their levels are measured according to the quality standard ISO 3632. Some brands, like Zaran, include a certificate of analysis on their website. The saffron is analyzed before it is graded, packaged, and distributed — at least by exporters who are in the business of selling high-quality saffron.

“Saffron has a shelf life of two to three years before it loses its natural sweetness and turns more sour, and scales like picrocrocin tell us that,” explains Salehi. “Picrocrocin will even tell us where in the world a batch of saffron is from. And on the topic of aroma, I’d argue most of the aroma comes from the parts that people don’t like, the yellow parts. But cooks and farmers often view saffron differently.”

What does saffron taste like?

“Saffron isn’t so much a flavor, but more so a presence,” says Frisch.

Describing the taste of saffron can be tricky, even for those who are very familiar with it. The delicate threads can be described as earthy, grassy, or perhaps floral, and those floral notes can also carry a faint sweetness.

Because saffron is also commonly thrown into dishes with other ingredients, it’s difficult to pinpoint its exact flavor profile. “I rarely use saffron as the sole seasoning in a dish,” says Roustaei. “But what I can say is that you can tell if it’s not in a dish. It’s instantly noticeable.”

It’s the gentle aromatic quality that saffron brings to Iranian dishes that makes it irreplaceable in recipes. “I like to describe it as bringing soul to a dish by perfuming it in a way you can’t replicate with anything else,” Deravian says. “But if you want to get a more clear taste of saffron, the best way is not having it in cooked dishes. Instead, have it in something like a beverage or perhaps an ice cream.”

Saffron will also taste different based on where it originates. “Terroir, soil conditions, weather will all make a difference in how saffron tastes and smells,” says Frisch. “We received saffron from a farmer in Illinois and it was different from the saffron we usually receive from Afghanistan. The drying process is also going to affect the flavor, unless it’s done well. Good saffron is dried very slowly, and drying it under too high a heat affects its aroma and flavor.”

Which cultures use saffron in their cooking?

“Saffron is synonymous with Iranian cuisine. You can’t speak of our food and not mention saffron,” says Deravian. “We include it in our kebabs. We include it in our stews. And, of course, our rice dishes that are so important to an Iranian table,” such as the iconic chelo ba tahdig, a saffron-infused steamed rice dish with a golden, crispy crust.

In Afghanistan, which was once part of the ancient Persian empire, saffron and rice are also a traditional combination. “We share many culinary similarities with Iran, and eat foods like saffron tahdig, saffron tea, and saffron ice cream,” says Salehi. “Saffron has always been part of Afghan culture and our food.”

Saffron is also the special ingredient in paella, Spain’s national dish, and used in French bouillabaisse. The stigmas are often stirred into Italian risottos, mixed into various Indian rice dishes, and used in Moroccan b’stilla, also known as pigeon pie. And because the spice made its way across the ancient spice trades of Europe and Asia, it also found a home in kitchens as far north as Sweden, where it’s a key ingredient in lussebullar, or saffron buns, which are commonly eaten on St. Lucia Day in mid-December.

How can you use saffron in the kitchen?

When it comes to its culinary uses, saffron simultaneously brings flavor, smell, and wonderful color. And best of all, a little goes a long way.

“You don’t need a lot of saffron to get the flavor, color, or aroma. In fact, if you go overboard, the dish starts to taste bitter or almost medicinal,” warns Deravian.

But many cooks are often more concerned about the price of saffron; even in countries where it’s commonly used, it still comes at a hefty price. That’s why local cooks have developed methods to use it economically.

Iranian and Afghan cooks commonly grind saffron threads into a fine powder before steeping it in warm water. If your saffron still has some of its natural moisture, a pinch of sugar or salt can help break up the threads in a mortar and pestle. Just don’t put it in a coffee or spice grinder since you risk tarnishing your saffron’s aroma with other scents and leftover residue. If you want to use a grinder to pulverize your threads, buy one for this specific purpose to avoid any cross-contamination.

Cover your ground saffron as it steeps for about 10 minutes. Once the flavor has fully bloomed, the saffron water becomes a more economical way to add big saffron flavor to dishes, at least in comparison to throwing whole threads into your pot.

“For a quarter teaspoon of powdered saffron, you can typically add two tablespoons of water. But it really depends on how potent you want it to be,” says Deravian of the steeping process. Temperature also plays an important role in the process. As with any tea or spice, you don’t want to steep saffron in boiling water, which can scorch it. Instead, let the hot water sit for a few minutes in the kettle beforehand.

Another alternative is the ice cube method, which involves sprinkling saffron powder on an ice cube and letting it slowly melt to produce saffron water, a process that takes about 20 minutes. This gentler if more time-consuming process produces the same result, but eliminates the risk of accidentally scorching the grounds.

Once it’s brewed, saffron water can be refrigerated and used as you wish, but will likely begin to lose its potency after two to three days. That’s why smaller batches are typically recommended.

Heat doesn’t just pose a threat to saffron when you’re making saffron water. It should also be avoided when you’re cooking and storing the spice. “You’re not going to add saffron to the beginning of a hot simmering dish,” says Roustaei. “You’re going to add it in the end to preserve the aromatics and color of the saffron.”

Store your saffron in airtight containers in areas that are free of heat, moisture, and direct light, such as a standard spice cabinet.

Can I grow my own saffron?

Yes! The saffron crocus can be purchased as corms (underground plant stems) and planted in your garden, but there are still some basic criteria to address first.

The saffron crocus requires hot summers, full sunlight, and very well-drained soil to thrive, which is why it’s typically found in southern Europe and Central and Western Asian countries. These saffron-producing flowers also multiply rapidly, and their corms should be propagated in the autumn, post-harvest every few years. Gardeners can divide the corms every five years, but saffron crocuses grown in more cramped conditions typically benefit from propagation once every two years.

It’s not common to find saffron corms in nurseries; you’re more likely to find them via mail-order suppliers. The corms go dormant in the summer, which means they divert energy away from growth and store it for conservation during the dry season. It’s during this phase of their life cycle that saffron corms can be harvested and shipped, typically in August. Securing corms can be tricky since stock usually sells out quickly. It should also be noted that there is another flower species that bears the nickname “autumn crocus” called the Colchicum. These purple flowers look like the saffron crocus but are actually poisonous and should not be confused with edible saffron.

What’s this I hear about “adulterated saffron” and how do I spot it?

It’s no secret that there is a lot of money to be made in the saffron industry; it’s projected to reach a value of over $1 billion in the next few years. However, these profits come with a handful of issues, beginning with fraudulent saffron that’s more common than you think.

“With adulterated saffron, all parts of the stamen are dyed red and packaged as 100 percent saffron, which it technically is, but just not the parts you actually want to consume,” says Frisch. “There are even accounts of other things like small threads, wires, even fishing lines being mixed in because it’s so highly valued and there is a lot of money to be made.”

But fear not, there are still some ways you can avoid adulterated saffron. One is to buy whole threads rather than saffron powders, waters, or other products.

“Iranians always grind their saffron but rarely do we buy it as a fine powder. We want to observe the color, the shape of the stigmas, and check for fillers. When you buy it ground, there’s absolutely no way of telling what it is you’re buying,” explains Roustaei.

When preparing saffron water, you’ll want to observe how the color releases from the stigmas. As mentioned, saffron has a golden yellow pigment, not red. If you see red in your bowl, it’s safe to say you have some dyed fillers in your saffron jar. The natural dyes should also pool out of your threads slowly rather than all at once. If you notice an instant puddle of color surrounding each stigma, that’s also a good indication you have dyed saffron.

“If I’m trying saffron I’ve never used before, I make a tea out of it,” says Roustaei. “I see what happens to the threads. Do they dissolve? Is there a red color coming off of them, rather than a yellowish orange? If so, then that means they’re dyed.”

Still, it can be tricky to get a sense of quality assurance while shopping for saffron. “If you don’t have trusted sources, then you don’t know what you’re getting. You don’t know if your saffron is adulterated with things like safflower, which has nothing to do with saffron,” says Deravian. “Good saffron should hit you with its aroma right away, even through the sealed packaging. As soon as you open that package, it should be intoxicating.”

So if Iran produces the vast majority of the world’s saffron, is that what I’m buying at the store?

Technically (and if the importer is abiding by international trade regulations), the answer is no. In fact, it is illegal to import Iranian saffron into the United States due to the trade sanctions placed on Iran. But if you know someone who traveled to Iran to visit relatives and brought you back some saffron, do not worry. The sanctions apply to importing saffron, not bringing it back as a thoughtful souvenir.

Needless to say, much of today’s conversation surrounding the saffron trade is closely intertwined with geopolitics, and because so much of the world’s saffron originates in Iran’s Khorasan province, American consumers might be left asking, “So where does it all go?” Or better yet, “Whose saffron are we buying?”

Many Iranian companies have managed to soften the economic blowback from U.S. sanctions by exporting their saffron to markets in Western Asia and North Africa, both of which have higher demands for the product than the United States. But there’s another route to export, one far more clandestine, that has allowed Iranian saffron to find its way into the world’s grocery stores. This is where a middleman, various shipment transfers between players in the supply change, and complex monetary transactions come into play.

“Much of Iran’s saffron goes to countries like Oman, Jordan, or the UAE, where it then gets repackaged,” says Roustaei. By transhipping saffron to other countries in the region, specifically those with lax labeling laws, Iran can tap into European and American markets by disguising its saffron as a product of the distributing nation. But there’s one particular middleman in this global network that has made headlines in recent years — Spain.

Spanish saffron is one of the most common saffron variations on American grocery shelves, but the numbers surrounding the European country’s saffron trade do not appear to match up. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, Spain exported 190,000 kilos of saffron in 2010, but only produced 1,500 kilos domestically. The reason behind this large disparity is the repackaging of foreign saffron, whether from Iran or neighboring countries.

“An example of one thing that’s happening, from a marketing perspective, is the case of Morocco,” says Frisch. “Morocco is a major saffron producer but its product doesn’t have the same cachet as Spanish saffron. So Moroccan producers will sell their product to Spain, who will repackage it and demand a premium on it.”

In other words, Iran’s world-famous saffron may or may not be for sale in American grocery stores. Your Spanish saffron might actually be from Morocco or Greece. And all of this is completely hidden to us, the consumer, because labels don’t paint a full picture.

Wait a second — so what does this do to saffron farmers?

“Big corporations make money, but Iranian and Afghan farmers do not,” says Salehi. Regarding his own country’s saffron trade, he says the “biggest challenge that Afghanistan’s saffron industry was facing, before the return to Taliban rule, was Iranian saffron corporations. Iranian companies would legally import 500 to 1,000 kilos of Iranian saffron into Afghanistan and then export it as Afghan saffron.” As those companies continued to profit, he explains, “farmers in Afghanistan’s smaller saffron market struggled to compete. This massive influx of Iranian saffron would ultimately bring market prices down, meaning that, in the end, Afghan farmers wouldn’t walk away with a profit.”

And these sanction-dodging practices have proven to be effective. Despite the trade restrictions that directly impair Iran’s economy and its citizens’ financial well-being, some of the country’s saffron companies have still managed to survive by expanding into new markets. According to the MIT Media Lab’s Observatory of Economic Complexity, Iran kept its position as the world’s top saffron exporter in 2020 with $108 million in revenue; other competitors included burgeoning markets like China, Hong Kong, and Kuwait.

If it’s believed Iran exports much of its saffron through transhipping, does that imply anything about its quality?

In short, no. Its export practices are reflective of the many sanctions that Iranian saffron producers must navigate rather than the quality of the saffron itself.

“There has been a lot of misinformation surrounding the quality and trade practices of Iranian saffron,” says Deravian. “The sanctions have crippled everyone, on every level of Iranian society, including saffron farmers.”

Following the reinstatement of all U.S. sanctions against Iran in 2018, both Iranian citizens and businesses have been largely barred from participating in the global economy, leaving millions of people, including those in the saffron trade, struggling to navigate the economic ramifications. In the case of saffron, finding alternative ways to export the product globally is likely a means of survival. This doesn’t mean that the quality of Iran’s saffron is compromised, or that it should be devalued.

“The current situation makes it seem like Iranian saffron has to be low-quality and mixed in with Spanish saffron, but that’s not the case,” says Frisch. “There’s exceptional Iranian saffron, some of the best in the world, but then there’s also fraudulent Iranian saffron, like there is with any product. But we [the United States] created this problem with our sanctions.”

Whether or not American consumers will one day be able to shop for Iranian saffron and compare brands is still dependent on foreign policy. But until then, home cooks can honor Iran’s rich culinary heritage through saffron, one golden tahdig or cup of saffron tea at a time.

I want to cook with saffron but I’m nervous about it being expensive. What should I make?

One of the biggest misconceptions about saffron is that it can only be used for special occasions, but many people, like Deravian, want to make it less intimidating to the average home cook.

“Saffron is a precious spice and we don’t want to waste it, but once you buy it, use it,” says Deravian. “Life is too short not to use your saffron. Get more familiar with it, play around with it.”

Here are a handful of recipes to help you get started. And remember, saffron can be an everyday ingredient if you know how to use it wisely.

Mark Bittman’s Paella

Naz Deravian’s Joojeh Kabab ba Holu

Omid Roustaei’s Zereshk Polo

Naz Deravian’s Chelo ba Tahdig

Dassana Amit’s Firni

Christine Benlafquih’s Moroccan Saffron Chicken

Anne Burrell’s Risotto alla Milanese

Mahin Gilanpour Motamed’s Bastani Irani

Jennifer Jansch & Sam Sifton’s St. Lucia Buns

Sylvio Martins is a freelance writer and actor based in Los Angeles.
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.

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