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What you need to know: cooking with saffron

Cooking with saffron is like performing a culinary coronation. The rarest and most regal spice in the world, it turns everything it touches golden, literally. Here's what you need to know about this special spice.

Saffron perfumes any dish it graces with a hard to describe aroma that’s a bit like a bouquet of honey, almonds and clover. The flavor that saffron brings to a dish is just as difficult to peg, being savory, peppery and suave at the same time. What is certain is that saffron is the Midas touch for some of the world’s most classic foods. Without saffron, paella is just a pan of Spanish rice, bouillabaisse a crock of French seafood stew and couscous a platter of nondescript North African pasta.

What makes saffron so special? 

The little red threads of saffron are the dried female parts (style and stigma filament) of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativa), a small autumn flowering plant from Eurasia. It is primarily cultivated in Spain and Iran with smaller areas of production elsewhere including: Italy, France and Afghanistan among other locales. Part of the reason that saffron is so expensive is that one flower only produces 3 filaments, just once every year. The saffron threads must be tediously plucked by hand, during a small harvest window and then carefully dried. Each small strand of saffron represents a large investment of time and labor, so it’s no wonder the spice is so pricey. Another reason? It’s just that good. The unequaled aroma, flavor and color that saffron imparts to food isn’t approached by any other seasoning, making it worth all of the effort and price.

How to buy saffron 

When buying saffron, look for powerfully fragrant, dark reddish, unbroken strands with minimal yellow filaments. They should have a springy, not overly dry, but not oily or sodden texture. Avoid buying powdered saffron which is easily and frequently cut with turmeric and/or paprika. Even if purity is assured, powdered saffron quickly loses its aroma and flavor anyway.

How to cook with saffron 

When cooking with saffron, a little goes a long way. Use too much and the flavor becomes unbalanced and overpowering, resembling a metallic perfume. This isn’t a spice you toss in willy nilly without measuring, as if you could afford to do so! Follow the recipe guidelines to get the best out of your saffron investment.

How to store saffron 

Protect your saffron investment. Store it in an airtight container in the dark, away from humidity and temperature extremes. Do not store saffron in the freezer or refrigerator, as it may absorb other food odors or lend an unwanted odor and flavor to other foods. Cold storage can also cause moisture to condensate on the saffron when moving the container in and out of the cold, rendering the flavor musty.

Saffron works beautifully in dishes that feature: rice, pasta, eggs, seafood and chicken. Pale broths, custard, milk and cream are excellent carriers for the flavor of saffron.

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