There is no way of mistaking the unique enhancement that Saffron gives to add a dish. When making a culinary journey through Spain and had paella. This is the first dish that springs to mind as saffron is a key ingredient in this aromatic rice dish. However, this obviously leads to the question of what does saffron actually taste like?
Saffron has a unique sweet and floral taste. Unlike other bold spices, saffron’s flavor is more subtle. They enhance the taste of whatever other ingredients in the dish. Only a small amount is needed to lift the flavors. Which is good because saffron is so expensive.
What Does Saffron Taste Like?
Top-quality saffron has a very unique sweet and floral taste to it. At the same time, it has earthy undertones and a very complex and nuanced flavor. It is certainly not the type of spice that you want to mix with strong overpowering flavors. You would lose the subtleties of the saffron flavor against stronger spices.
If, on the other hand, your saffron has a bitter metallic type of taste, or maybe even plastic, it is in all likelihood a cheap imitation. Some really low grades could have been mixed in with the better saffron to boost profits.
Depending on the type of dish, there may be a sweetness, almost like honey but at the same time, you will most definitely get the light floral aromas. And depending on what it’s mixed with, may even have a more pungent type of flavor rather than sweet. This is nothing to do with saffron per se, but more how your saffron blends with that dish.
What Does Saffron Add To A Dish?
The most classic use of saffron is in rice dishes. For instance, risottos, pilafs, and rice dishes in general. What makes saffron work so well with rice is because rice is such a bland grain and picks up the flavors of the saffron really easily.
What I’ve noticed when I cook with saffron is that when it is infused into the rice it enhances all of the other flavors without overpowering them in any way.
Some dishes known to use saffron are:
A traditional Spanish rice dish, often features saffron for its distinct flavor and vibrant yellow color. Saffron-infused broth is used to cook the rice along with a combination of meats, seafood, and vegetables.
This classic Italian dish from Milan is made with Arborio rice, saffron, butter, onion, white wine, and Parmesan cheese. The saffron rice is rich golden and adds a unique floral note.
A traditional Provençal fish stew, bouillabaisse incorporates saffron for both flavor and color. Saffron-infused broth is used as the base, and the stew typically includes various fish and shellfish along with aromatic herbs and vegetables.
Saffron is often used in various types of biryanis, which are aromatic rice dishes popular in Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Saffron is added to the rice layers, imparting a beautiful golden color and a subtle flavor.
It is also sometimes used to enhance the flavor and appearance of desserts. It can be found in ice cream, custards, cakes, and sweet rice pudding.
Saffron can also be used to add a unique touch to beverages. It is sometimes added to herbal teas, cocktails, and traditional drinks like saffron-infused milk or saffron-infused lemonade.
Does Saffron Make Food Taste Good?
What I’ve come to know when cooking with saffron is it most definitely makes your food taste better. Its complex flavor enhances the rest of the ingredients.
You don’t need to add more saffron to achieve this. You only need between 8 and 12 threads of saffron (or a pinch) when cooking. Adding more will not enhance the flavor any further. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spices, so adding unnecessary extra saffron will just be wasting this unique and precious spice rather than adding anything extra to the dish.
Where Did Saffron Originate
The earliest documented reference to saffron dates back to an Assyrian Botanical text from the 7th Century BC. While commercial cultivation references can be found in Santorini, Greece, between the 6th Century BC and the 11th Century AD.
Saffron no longer grows or reproduces in the wild without human intervention due to the commercial propagation methods. The purple flowers are meticulously harvested by hand, with the highest quality saffron obtained by picking them on the morning of their first bloom. The carefulness of the harvesting process influences the prices of saffron.
It holds very deep spiritual meanings as well across different cultures.
Is Saffron Expensive?
High quality saffron is easily the most expensive spice in the world. It is almost precious and it retails for more than $500 an ounce. It is so expensive because it is incredibly labor-intensive to produce.
The saffron flower, otherwise known as the crocus sativus, only flowers during the fall each year and must be harvested on the morning that the buds first open. Each of these flowers has three tiny thread-like stigmas in the center (saffron threads). The flowers need to be painstakingly opened with a scalpel and each stigma thread must then be removed by hand before being dried in the sun.
Approximately 85% of the world’s saffron is produced in Iran these days. Primarily because of the sunny climate that allows it to grow easily and flower, as well as for the drying process. Saffron is also produced in Morocco, and India, as well as in Greece where it was originally cultivated.
What are the most famous Saffrons?
There are primarily three main variations:
Persian Saffron (Iranian Saffron)
Considered to be the highest quality one, Persian saffron is known for its deep red threads with a potent aroma. Iran is the largest producer of saffron in the world, and Persian saffron is highly regarded for its superior quality.
Spanish saffron is another well-known and widely available variety. It has vibrant red threads with a slightly milder flavor compared to Persian saffron. Spain is one of the largest producers of saffron, and Spanish saffron is commonly used in many traditional Spanish dishes.
Kashmiri saffron, grown in the Kashmir region of India, is known for its vibrant deep red color and distinct aroma. It is considered to be of high quality and is prized for its flavor. Kashmiri saffron is often used in Indian and Mughlai cuisine.
Apart from these main variations, there may be smaller regional or local variations of saffron depending on the country or specific growing regions.
What Is Poor Man’s Saffron?
As you can well imagine, with saffron being so phenomenally expensive, people over the years have been looking for an alternative. Something more cost-effective and that can be used instead.
The most common of these is safflower, a much cheaper option and also called ‘Poor Man’s Saffron‘. It has been used as a natural food coloring in drinks and food. It has even been used as a fabric dye and as a decorative plant for thousands of years, just about as long as saffron has been around.
When small villages across Spain have their annual fiestas, this dish is cooked on a large scale in the town square. Once cooked, it is distributed to the fiesta attendees free of charge, almost always safflower is used to give it a distinctive color. This is because saffron is too expensive when preparing free food for a group numbering in the thousands!
Does Turmeric Taste Similar To Saffron?
Another saffron substitute is turmeric, which imparts a bright yellow color that is slightly more yellow than saffron. The flavor of turmeric is earthy and bold which is similar to one aspect of saffron’s taste.
However, we need to be aware that turmeric is not a perfect match for saffron, because saffron has a more delicate flavor as opposed to turmeric’s bold flavor.
When using saffron you do get shades of yellow added to your dish in terms of color as well as shades of red coming from different parts of the saffron flower.
Therefore, what my friend Mari Carmen does when cooking large-scale paella for village fiestas is use safflower near the start of her cooking process before adding some turmeric for some yellow color. She adds her turmeric and sweet paprika carefully, constantly tasting to ensure she doesn’t overdo things.
If Mari Carmen’s paellas are lacking in color then she’ll add additional safflower with no risk of spoiling the flavor of the dish.
There is also another option that you can find and is this ‘ready made’ mix containing saffron.
I love the look of this one and I like to repurpose the tin into some vintage looking stuff.
Sometimes marketed as “saffron substitute,” as indicated above, can provide a similar yellow color to saffron. However, it lacks the distinctive flavor of true saffron.
Marigold petals, specifically the Calendula variety, can be used as a substitute too. They offer a vibrant yellow-orange color and a mild floral aroma, though the flavor is not identical to saffron.
Saffron extracts or powders
If you’re primarily looking for the color and not the flavor, commercial saffron extracts or powders can be an option. However, they often lack the complexity and subtlety of true saffron.
It is a convenient substitute for saffron when you desire both color and flavor. It imparts a vibrant red hue and a hint of sweetness to rice dishes. However, using it excessively can introduce a slightly bitter taste. As a general guideline, use half a teaspoon for every teaspoon of saffron being replaced. While it serves as a spicy alternative to achieve the desired color, moderation is key to prevent overwhelming the dish with its flavor.
Which is healthier saffron or turmeric?
Both have been studied for their potential health benefits. However, they offer different properties and are often used for different purposes.
Here’s a brief comparison of some of their potential health benefits:
- It contains several bioactive compounds, including crocin, safranal, and picrocrocin, which are believed to have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
- It has been studied for its potential mood-enhancing effects, such as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Saffron may have potential anticancer properties, but more research is needed to fully understand its effects.
- It contains a compound called curcumin, which is known for its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- It has been studied for its potential benefits in reducing chronic inflammation. This is associated with various diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Curcumin in turmeric has shown potential in improving symptoms of arthritis, supporting digestive health, and aiding in the management of metabolic conditions like diabetes.
Overall, both of them can be part of a healthy diet, but turmeric, particularly its active compound curcumin (not the same as cumin), has been more extensively studied for its potential health benefits.
How do you store it?
Properly storing saffron is essential due to its high cost and delicate nature. To preserve its quality, store saffron in an airtight container, preferably in a dry place away from sunlight. It’s crucial to keep it dry and avoid any contact with liquid, unless you’re using it immediately in a recipe.
Also, as a tip, bear in mind you can also use it in powder to maximize the flavor. In non-liquid recipes or baking, just grind the threads using a mortar and pestle until they form a powder-like consistency.