Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, known as the saffron crocus. Crocus is a genus in the family; Iridaceae (iris family). It is both a bulbous and herbal plant. The lifespan of the saffron plant is 7 to 10 years. The brown bulb of the saffron plant belongs to the corm family. Each bulb grows into 6 to 9 thin herbal leaves. Each saffron crocus grows to 20–30 cm and bears up to 4 flowers, pink or purple coloured flowers bloom from each corm. The pistil of the saffron flower is in the centre and contains the ovary and the thin, yellow style growing inside. In autumn, purple buds appear. Only in October, after most other flowering plants have released their seeds, do its bright coloured flowers develop; they range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve. A three-pronged style emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with 3 vivid crimson stigmas that are 20 to 30 mm in length, which are each the distal end of a carpel.
Saffron contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles. Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise compiled under Ashurbanipal, and it has been traded and used for over four millennia. Iran now accounts for approximately 90% of the world production of saffron.
Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight. Saffron threads are the stigmas of a small purple crocus – each produces only 3 threads, which must be picked and sorted by hand. Stigma, also called style (central part of a flower, female sexual organ). Approximately 150000 flowers are needed for one kilogram of dried saffron; typically, one would need 2000 m2 field area per kg harvest. Less expensive qualities include also the yellow stamina (male sexual organ), which do not have any taste of their own. A gram contains enough threads for a dozen or more uses. Half a teaspoon of saffron (which might well be a fifth of a gram) is, for example, enough for one litre of saffron custard, provided that the saffron is of reasonable quality.
Saffron is the triploid form of a species found in Eastern Greece, Crocus cartwrightianus; it probably appeared first in Crete. An origin in Western or Central Asia, although often suspected, has been disproved by botanical research.
Crocus sativus thrives in the Mediterranean maquis, an ecotype superficially resembling the North American chaparral, and similar climates where hot and dry summer breezes sweep semi-arid lands. It can nonetheless survive cold winters, tolerating frosts as low as −10C degrees (14 F) and short periods of snow cover.
Today, saffron is cultivated from the Western Mediterranean (Spain) to India (Kashmir). Spain and Iran are the largest producers, accounting together for more than 80% of the world’s production, which is approximately 300 tons per year.
In Europe, saffron production is almost limited to the Mediterranean; Spanish (La Mancha) saffron is generally considered the best. In much smaller scale, saffron is also cultivated in Italy and Greece (Crete).
The ultimate origin of the English word saffron is, like that of the cultivated saffron clone itself, of somewhat uncertain origin. It immediately stems directly or via medieaval Latin safranum, the word spread from the Iberic peninsular (then under Mauric rule) to practically all European languages and even some non-European ones via the 12th-century Old French term safran. Safranum derives from the Persian intercessor or za’ferân. Ancient Parsi (now known as Farsi) which is the first language recorded as using this elegant material for cooking thousands of years ago.
Negin Sargol Saffron: Negin belongs to a new variety of saffron that is longer and thicker than common saffron.
Sargol Saffron (All red saffron): This kind of saffron is pure and contains the stigma without the style. 105 kg of saffron flowers produces 1kg of sargol saffron.
Pushal Negin Saffron: Pushal Sargol is a hybrid that produces saffron which is longer and thicker than common saffron.
Pushal Saffron (Mancha saffron): This kind of saffron contains the stigmas with a 3-5mm style. 101kg of saffron flowers produces 1kg of pushal saffron.
Daste Saffron (Bunches Saffron): This kind of saffron contains the stigma with the whole style.
Style Saffron: This kind of saffron only contains the style without the stigma.
Aroma and Flavour
Saffron’s bitter taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. The flowers possess a sweet, honey-like fragrance.
Buying and Storing
Available in threads (whole stigmas) and ground, your best bet is to go with the threads. Not only will they retain their flavour longer, but you will also be assured you have purchased pure saffron. Powdered saffron is not as strong, tends to lose flavour, and is also easily adulterated with fillers and imitations. Since so little is needed, you will find ground saffron sold in packets of about 1/16 of a teaspoon, and threads equal to about 1/4 gram or 1/2 of a teaspoon.
Saffron is readily available in most large grocery stores and speciality spice markets. Due to its value, it may be stocked in a locked or secured area.
Choose saffron threads or powder from a reputable distributor. Saffron should be packaged in foil to protect from air and light. Bulk saffron is often sold from small wooden boxes.
Store saffron in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to six months for maximum flavour. Saffron, like other herbs and spices, is sensitive to light, so wrap the packet in foil to protect it further. It will not spoil, but it will lose increasingly more and more of its flavour with age.
Health benefits of Saffron
The stigma has many chemical components, such as: carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, pigment (especially crocin), essence (especially safranal) and flavourings (especially picrocin).
Due to its other properties, Saffron can also be used for medical purposes such as:
• Helps with digestion; strengthens the stomach and is anti-tympanites.
• Rouses sexual desire
• Is analgesic, especially for colicky pains and combats gingivitis
• Helps to fight tumors and collections of free radicals (thus reacting against cancerous cells).
The intensive colour of saffron is caused by pigments of carotenoid type. Although saffron contains some conventional carotenoids (a- and B-carotene, lycopin and zeaxanthin), its staining capability is mostly caused by crocetine esters; crocetin is a dicarboxylic acid with a carotenoid-like C18 backbone which is formed from carotenoid precursors (diterpene carotenoid). Crocin, a diester of crocin with gentobiose, is the single most important saffron pigment.
In the essential oil (max. 1%), several terpene aldehydes and ketones are found. The most abundant constituent is safranal, 2,6,6-trimethyl 1,3-cyclohexadiene-1-carbaldehyde (50% and more); another olfactorily important compound is 2-hydroxy 4,4,6-trimethyl 2,5-cyclohexadien-1-one. Furthermore, terpene derivatives have been identified (pinene, cineol).
The bitter taste is attributed to picrocrocin, the glucoside of an alcohol structurally related to safranal (4-hydroxy 2,4,4- trimethyl 1-cyclohexene-1-carboxaldehyde ). On de-glucosylation, picrocrocin yields safranal.
Cooking Ideas with Saffron
By soaking saffron in warm water, one gets a bright yellow–orange solution.Saffron is rather unique among spices in that its main aroma and colour components are water-soluble; therefore, the stigmata may be soaked overnight in water, filtered and the water then added, which gives a pure and homogeneous colour. The spice is also powdered and then extracted with a little milk; after half an hour, the milk has the deep colour of egg yolk and is added to biriyanis or sweets. Using the dry spice (whether ground or as a whole) directly for cooking is not favourable, as it releases its fragrance too slowly, and prolonged cooking should be avoided for loss of aroma. Thus, it is best to prepare an extract with cold liquid and add that extract to the hot foods.
Arabs use saffron for preparing a kind of tea named after it and Arabic coffee.
Indians use saffron for the preparation of a dish called Biryani.
Italians and the Swiss use saffron for the preparation of a dish with rice called Risotto.
Spaniards use saffron for the preparation of a dish called Paella.
Germans and the English use saffron for the preparation of saffron cake.
Food products such as margarine, sausages, cake powder, and many desserts.
Dairy products such as butter and cheese.
Saffron is also used in other products as sweets, candy, ice cream, jelly, beverages, wine, chicken, rice, seafood, soup, bread, and cake.
Saffron is more important in Central Asia and Northern India, where it is used extensively for rice dishes.