What Is Saffron and How Do I Cook With It?

Also, why is it so expensive?

Some ingredients straight-up *sound* intimidating, and saffron is the president of that club. When I think of saffron, I think of pure, unabashed opulence. If there was an award for Sexiest Spice Alive, it would definitely go to saffron (just to clarify, saffron is not a living being). The fragile, red threads are undeniably luxurious and the golden hue that they impart make for an extremely visually appealing meal. Don't let the steep price freak you out — this spice is just as easy to cook with as the rest of them, and your palate will certainly thank you once you start incorporating more saffron into your home cooking.

What Is Saffron and Why Is It So Expensive?

There's a reason why saffron is associated with wealth and luxury — this stuff is expensive. The reason for its high price tag (you might pay upwards of $15 per gram) is because it needs to be harvested by hand. In fact, it takes about 1,000 flowers in order to harvest just one ounce of saffron. This magical spice is derived from a flower called crocus sativus, A.K.A. the "saffron crocus" and the threads are actually the stamen of the flower.

Where to Buy Saffron

When it comes to sourcing your saffron, your best bet is to search for imported saffron — while there is some saffron that is produced in the US, the best quality saffron is grown in the Middle East and Asia. Once you've procured your saffron, always store it in a cool, dark place to make sure it stays as fresh and fragrant as possible. Before you cook with saffron, give it a whiff to make sure that it smells slightly sweet and earthy and that there are only red threads with no visible yellow stamens. Like any dried spice, try to use it within 6 months, as it can start to lose its potent flavor over time.

Buy It: Herati Saffron ($8.99, Burlap & Barrel)

What Does Saffron Taste Like?

If you've never cooked with saffron before, it's a little tricky to describe the flavor. You know how there are some jokes where you just had to be there? Well with saffron, you just have to try it for yourself. It's a subtle, gentle fragrance, yet when it is incorporated into a dish, you'll know. Of course, the bright yellow color that it adds to a dish can certainly give its presence away, but once you've tried the flavor once, you'll never mistake it again. Sorry — I know that this is an annoyingly ambiguous description of what it takes like, but you seriously need to cook with it to fully understand the flavor profile.

How to Use Saffron

Now before you go sprinkling these delicate threads on your next salad (what are you, made of money?), let's talk about how to incorporate saffron into your cooking. Because it is a pricier ingredient, there's a little bit more on the line, so you definitely want to treat it with extra TLC. Like any dried herb, saffron requires two crucial components to activate its signature aromatics — heat and moisture. Plus, a little time always helps, too. Depending on the recipe, it might be beneficial for you to steep some of the threads in hot water for a few minutes to pull out some of that flavor and color. You can opt to grind up some of your saffron threads in a mortar and pestle before steeping, which some cooks prefer because it can help release more flavor and color.

If you're making a soup, pasta, rice, or anything that involves hot liquid, you can skip the steeping step and simply incorporate the threads directly into your broth or pasta/rice water. The threads will hit the hot water and immediately impart flavor and color to the entire dish. Give the threads at least a few minutes to penetrate whatever it is that you're cooking. Remember, just a few threads go a long way. Typically, just 10 tiny threads can flavor an entire pot of rice. Basically, always make sure that the saffron is being activated by moisture and heat. Sprinkling it over a dish like salt is not going to do much for you, and there are much better ways to waste your money (my daily coffee buying addiction can confirm that).

If you're ready to put some saffron to good use, a great place to start is a simple rice dish. Whether it's a creamy risotto or classic tahdig (crunchy Persian rice), this is a great way to dip your toes into the world of saffron (not literally, unless you want golden toes). Once you've graduated from rice, try it out in a braised chicken dish or a cozy lamb tagine. There's no need to be intimidated (even if the price tag is a little bit more expensive than what you may be used to). It's time to embark on a lifetime of sexy, saffron dishes.

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