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Saffron is an important spice used in the Mediterranean, North African and Asian recipes as a colorant and flavoring for dishes. Learn more about it!

Saffron is an important spice commonly used in the Mediterranean, North African and Asian cuisines and recipes as a colorant and flavoring for rice, seafood and meat dishes, soups, pastries, cheeses and liquor. Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, perfume and medicine for over 3,000 years.

Saffron has a beautiful red-gold color and contributes a rich yellow-orange color when used in cooking. Saffron has an aroma described as perfumy, resembling that of honey with a touch of grassy, hay-like and metallic notes.  Saffron’s distinct flavor is considered to be a bit sweet and hay-like with hints of bitterness and impossible to adequately substitute.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world by weight, fetching up to 3,000€ per kilo in 2010. Saffron is sold in threads that are derived from the saffron crocus flower. Each flower produces three stigmas which are tiny filaments that collect pollen for the plant. These stigmas are collected and then dried to produce the famous spice threads. The high cost of saffron is easily attributed to the fact that approximately 250,000 saffron flowers are required to produce just one kilo of the famous saffron threads. To produce just one pound (454 grams) of dry saffron, 50,000 – 75,000 flowers are needed, equivalent to a whole football field of cultivation space. In order to hand pick the saffron threads from 150,000 flowers approximately 40 hours of human labor is required. All of this contributes to the high cost of the famous saffron spice.

Saffron is not a native plant in Spain; it is native to Southwestern Asia where it has been cultivated for over 3,000 years. However, saffron has been used by humans for over 4,000 years. The first known saffron documentation appeared in a 7th century BC Assyrian botanical reference. The important Mediterranean spice was introduced to Spain by the Arabs.

Today, saffron is grown in a large land belt from the Mediterranean in the west to Kashmir in the east.  Although saffron is not a native plant in Spain, it is an important crop in the La Mancha region in Spain where the saffron produced is said to be the highest quality and best saffron in the world. Spain is also a world famous exporter of saffron spice, exporting 190,000 kilos of saffron in 2010. Of all the Spanish saffron exported, only 0.8% originated from the famous La Mancha saffron region.

Saffron is also said to have many medicinal uses and has a long history of being used in traditional healing and is also highly esteemed in modern medicine. Studies have linked it to having positive effects on: Alzheimer’s disease, depression, weight loss, reducing symptoms of PMS, protecting the eyes from retinal stress, the heart and temporary effects on the immune system. Saffron has also been shown to be an effective anti-tumor agent in animals and to have inhibiting effects on DMBA-induced skin carcinoma, breast cancer cell proliferation and histamine H1 receptors, suggesting a potential use against allergic disorders. Additionally, saffron has been discovered to have anti-mutagenic and antioxidant-like properties.

List of Saffron Recipes

In Spain, India and Iran saffron is commonly used as an ingredient in saffron rice recipes.  One famous rice with saffron dish is Spanish paella valenciana and it is also an essential ingredient in the Spanish fabada asturiana dish and zarzuela fish stews, French bouillabaisse (spicy stew), Italian saffron risotto alla Milanese and Swedish and Cornish saffron buns. Other famous saffron recipes include: Iranian chelow kabab, Uzbek wedding plov (rice pilaf), Moroccan tajine-prepared dishes such as kefta meatballs, mqualli saffron chicken and mrouzia lamb dishes, Indian biryanis (spicy rice-vegetable dishes) as well as curry dishes and kheer (South Asian sweet milk dish).

Try out a saffron recipe or invent your own rice with saffron dish to experience an important taste of the Mediterranean cuisine.