Saffron Queen of Spices

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Saffron Mos Amazing Seasoning on the Market

Spice made from the stigmas of saffron flower may well be the most amazing seasoning on the market.

saffron nutrition

Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy (in decreasing order of production) dominate the world saffron harvest, with Iran and Spain alone producing 80% of the world crop. Find out which countries produce saffron for world market and unique terms used to differentiate be grades of saffron further down the page.

Saffron crocus should not be confused with safflower (American saffron), meadow saffron or autumn crocus, To be more exact, true a saffron crocus plant is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Liliales, and family Iridaceae.

Prepare Saffron | Saffron ISO Standards | Spanish Saffron | Persian Saffron | Saffron Powder | Medicinal Properties |

Origins of saffron flower

Saffron cultivation stretches back to prehistoric times. Presently, saffron is produced in a wide geographical belt extending the Mediterranean to the Kashmir in India.

saffron spice

Usually referred to as saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a fall-flowering perennial plant that is unknown in the wild.

The saffron crocus was the subject of artificial selection by growers interested in breeding for abnormally long stigmas. Ancient farmers specifically bred the saffron plant for its long red stigmas (Crocus sativus stigma). This is female part of the plant, and it's used as seasoning, fragrance, dye and medicine.

Saffron crocus is a sterile mutant of the fall-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus. Being sterile, the saffron crocus' purple flowers fail to produce viable seeds. So their reproduction is entirely dependent on human assistance.

The corms (bulb-like part of the plant situated below the soil) must be manually dug up, broken apart and replanted. A corm survives for one season, and it reproduces by dividing into new "cormlets". The cormlets then grow into new individual plants.

In a good year, a crocus plant might produce several flowers. Each saffron flower has three female parts (crocus sativus stigmas), and two male parts (stamen).

The stamens are half the size of the stigmas, they are deep yellow and without culinary value. Buying red saffron filaments ensures you are getting the 'female' part of the saffron flower, the stigma.

saffron threads

Each stigma is threadlike in appearance and is red or dark red in colour towards the top, and yellow towards the bottom of the stigma, where it is attached to the flower. The yellow bottom half is called the style.

The three stigmas are the only part of the saffron crocus that when dried or cured properly, become commercially sold saffron. Sold by the ounce, as filament or in powdered form.

Saffron threads by the bunch will have still have the style.

By cutting the stigmas apart prior to drying them, the "moisture" will evaporate out and no moisture remains inside the saffron stigma. When you leave the stigmas attached to each other, moisture is trapped inside the stigma. This shortens the shelf life and quality of the saffron. The drying process activates the chemical compounds, which release aroma, colour and flavor.

In your travels you will come across the word 'Sargol'. It's a Persian word, 'Sar' means head and 'Gol' means flower. So 'Sargol' literally means, head of the flower, the top half of the stigma. This is traditional Iranian designation for high quality saffron.

How to prepare Saffron

grind saffron

Include saffron in your food. A pinch goes a long way. Saffron adds rich flavour and exotic colour to your foods.

High grade saffron stigmas contain potent amounts of nutrients necessary for good vision, healthy skin and a robust sexual appetite.

grind into powder and let steep

pinch saffron Use one pinch of saffron filaments or about 15 to 20 threads.

mortar pistle Use mortar and pestle to grind threads into powder form.

hot kettle Mix the powder with a small amount of warm water.

butter Add a small pad of butter, about 1 tablespoon.

whisk Stir until powder dissolves and mixture turns to dark orange.

If you have the time, set aside saffron solution to allow active ingredients to fully diffuse. From here, you can proceed according to your recipe.

bowl For a traditional Persian steamed rice dish that calls for saffron. Mix melted butter with saffron solution, then add one serving of steamed rice to the bowl. Blend rice and saffron solution, until all rice kernels are coated in a rich yellow colour.

plain rice Place steamed rice on serving platter, formed in a mound shape. Then sprinkle rice coated with saffron solution over-top. If you are not counting calories, you can also place a small tab of soft butter on the mound of rice.

Tool to grind down saffron filaments

One pinch of high quality whole saffron, roughly 20 filaments, after grinding should result in 1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon of saffron powder. If you have to use more saffron to impart colour and aroma, then you are running up your cost.

There are all sorts of mortar and pestles available on the market. Stainless steel, porcelain, wooden and of course stone. The marble tools featured below are perfectly designed for grinding saffron threads. The matching surface sizes of the mortar and the pestle greatly increases the contact area between mortar and pestle.

In my opinion, a stone surface is well suited for manually grinding spices into powder form. In this case, because the amount of saffron filament required is so small, using an electrical grinder is out of the question.

Small Marble Grinder

"This grinder was a fantastic gift choice. The stone is of excellent quality and is very pleasing. The design is the key here: it matches the surface sizes of the mortar and the pestle to greatly increase the contact area where all the work is done. This results in faster, smoother grinding with better results. What an excellent product. We are delighted with it. "

taken from the Comments Section on Amazon

Stainless steel, porcelain or even wooden varieties of mortar and pestle are better suited for crushing and mashing. Saffron filaments need to be ground into small granules, the smaller the better. Keep in mind, the smaller the granules, the faster the active ingredients will diffuse and impart their taste and aroma.

How to keep and store saffron

Dry saffron is highly sensitive to fluctuating pH levels, and rapidly breaks down chemically in the presence of light and oxidizing agents. It must therefore be stored away in air-tight containers in order to minimize contact with atmospheric oxygen. Saffron is somewhat more resistant to heat.

Saffron ISO standards

A handful of countries cultivate saffron for an international market. Manufacturers of saffron based products may source their saffron from multiple locations each with its own distinct soil and weather conditions.

Wholesale buyers of saffron refer to a photospectometry report for specific criteria and standards.

photospectometry report

A photospectometry report is a laboratory analysis to determine the potency of three chemicals present in the saffron stigma.

Samples are assigned grades by gauging the spice's crocin content, revealed by measurements of crocin-specific spectroscopic absorbance. We arrive at level of Absorbance by determining the sample's degree of transparency to a given wavelength of light. Transparency is determined by ratio of light intensity exiting the sample to that of the incident light.

Grading standards are set by the International Organization for Standardization, a federation of national standards bodies. ISO 3632 deals with saffron with an established four empirical colour intensity grades. IV (poor), III, II, and I (finest quality).

saffron iso

Many growers, traders, and consumers reject such lab test numbers. They prefer a more holistic method of sampling batches of thread for specific traits in a fashion similar to wine tasters.

Be that as it may, ISO certification relies on data obtained through spectrophotometry reports at certified testing laboratories worldwide.

These colour grades proceed from grades with absorbances lower than 80 up to 190 or greater. The finest quality saffron would receive absorbance scores in excess of 250.

And market prices for saffron types follow directly from ISO scores.

Active ingredients in saffron that determine quality

1) The chemical crocin is responsible for the colour of saffron. Even though saffron stigmas are red, their dye is the colour of egg yolks.

2) The chemical picrocrocin is responsible for the flavor of saffron.

3) The chemical safranal is responsible for the aroma of saffron.

The higher the colouring strength of saffron solution, the higher its value. As well, saffron's colouring strength determines its flavor and aroma.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), has set a minimum standard to define Category I saffron at 190. As mentioned above, the highest quality saffron would receive absorbance scores in excess of 250.

Category I saffron is rated at 190 which means it contains very high levels of active ingredients that impart colour, aroma and taste.

Category 2 saffron is rated at 150.

Category 3 saffron is rated at 110.

Category 4 saffron is rated at 80 which means it is poor quality saffron containing least amount of active ingredients imparting colour, aroma and taste.

Spanish saffron

Saffron was introduced into Spain through contact with middle-eastern cultures around the time of the Christian crusades. Presently, Spain is one of the world's top suppliers of saffron, mostly, harvested in the sunny gardens of Castilla-La Mancha region, the native land of Don Quixote.

Grades of Spanish saffron:

listed in descending order of colouring strength and amount of style still attached to stigma:

  1. Coupe; the best Spanish saffron comes with very little flower waste and virtually no style.
  2. Mancha; the second best Spanish saffron comes with very little flower waste, however some style is left attached to stigma.
  3. Rio; third grade Spanish saffron comes with some flower waste and plenty of style still attached to stigma
  4. Sierra; lowest grade Spanish saffron comes with some flower waste and most of the style still attached to stigma.

All this means, is that you would have to use a lot more Sierra grade saffron to get the same colour and aroma as you would with Coupe grade saffron. It may be cheaper to go with high quality saffron because a lot less has to be used.

La Mancha Spanish saffron is perhaps the bestselling saffron however that has more to do with price range than quality. Iranian saffron commands a higher price because it is internationaly recoqnized as highest rated quality saffron. Iranians consume saffron on a daily basis.

Persian saffron

Most popular variety of high quality Iranian saffron is Sargol. High quality designation is acquired by achieving specific criteria set by domestic government regulations, as well as international certifications like HACCP and ISO 3632.

Grade A Sargol saffron is pure and contains stigma without style. Colouring power is very high (above 250 USP), with virtually no broken stigmas.

There is also a Grade B Sargol saffron which is virtually the same as grade A but with lower levels of Colouring agent. (about 220 to 250 USP).

Grades of Persian saffron:

Sargol; The word 'Sargol' is of Persian origin. 'Sar' means head and 'Gol' means flower. So 'Sargol' literally means, head of the flower. High quality saffron 'Sargol' refers to the top half of the stigma.

Coupe; comparable to 'Sargol' grade saffron. Coupe is used in western markets to designate highest quality of saffron. The following saffron brand designated as 'Coupe', has an ISO grade of I, colour strength of 246, fragrance level of 35, and flavor level of 90. It becomes appropriately packaged in a opaque container with air tight lid, which will prolong shelf life of saffron threads.

Save money when you buy bulk. Store container in a cool and dry place and it will keep in health benefits for up to two years.

Saffron Powder

fine saffron granules readily release their colour and aroma

There is no such thing as cheap saffron. It takes over 14,000 of these tiny stigmas for each ounce of saffron. The quality of saffron is based on its performance as a colouring agent and its ability to impart aroma and flavour.

Each red stigma is like a little capsule that encloses the complex chemicals that make up saffron's aroma, flavor, and yellow dye. In order to release these chemicals, you must steep the threads. Powdered saffron is more efficient because it does not need to be steeped. If powder granules are fine enough, then saffron will readily diffuse into warm water solution.

Powdered saffron releases its flavor more readily, but it also loses it strength for the same reason. Proper storage for powdered saffron is most important. As well, saffron in powder form can be easily adulterated with imitations. However, it is easy enough to detect adulteration because of saffron's unique taste and aroma.

Legitimate powdered saffron is red-orange and is made by grinding saffron stigmas (female part). For culinary endeavours, best to avoid saffron powder leaning towards shades of yellow.

Saffron for health

increase libido ~ prevent vision degneration ~ mood enhancer

Enhance your libido with saffron which contains picrocrocin, a chemical that makes your body, especially sexual organs, more sensitive to the touch.

Saffron Medicine

Ancient Egyptians viewed saffron as an aphrodisiac and the ancient Romans used to sprinkle saffron on their marriage beds.

Saffron capsules can be used to enhance your mood. The safranal chemical present in saffron has antidepressant properties.

Clinical trials have discovered saffron effectively treated mild to moderate depression.

Saffron lotion for skin care and skin conditions. Still another wonder of saffron is the ability to remedy painful skin conditions like psoriasis.

When you pay for saffron, make sure it's really saffron and not American Saffron which is better known as safflower.

Medicinal Properties of Saffron Spice