Working with Saffron
My clients are largely professional chefs who work in some of the finest restaurant and hotel kitchens in the U.S. However, it is just as important to me, as a saffron vendor, to make sure that every home cook, student chef, caterer, supermarket buyer and culinary academy not only buys the best saffron available anywhere but knows how to use it properly to get the most value. So whether you use saffron once a year or several times a day, I have developed the following guidelines for you.
It is very hard for the busy chef to remember to soak/infuse saffron threads before adding saffron to a recipe, so many times the threads are thrown straight into the boil; when you do that it is like throwing the saffron down the sink since saffron threads continue to release aroma, flavor and color for several hours. If this sounds familiar, I urge you to switch to saffron powder. You will use less saffron and you won’t have to steep the powder before adding it to your recipe. The chemicals in saffron, crocin (color),picrocrocin (flavor), safranal (aroma) are already activated in powdered saffron because the threads containing them has been crushed. I guarantee the superior coloring strength of both my Golden Gate Brand saffron threads and powder by photospectrometry report. With a photospectrometry report to read, you donít have to rely on the “word” of the person selling you saffron.
So when working with saffron, it really pays to understand the differences between working with threads and working with powder. If convenience is very important to you, you will want to give my saffron powder a try. It’s easier to measure than threads and releases aroma, flavor and color (yellow dye)immediately without steeping (see explanation in What is Saffron? section of this website). As an added bonus, because saffron powder is more concentrated and mine measures a whopping 256 in coloring strength but costs the same as an ounce of Golden Gate Brand threads, you will be getting more for your money. On the other hand, if you want to see the saffron threads in your finished dish and don’t mind the extra step of steeping them in order to release their potent chemicals, then you will be happiest working with saffron threads.
Work with both saffron threads and saffron powder in order to learn which form of the spice you prefer for specific types of cooking or baking. Each form has many fans around the world so don’t believe anyone who tells you to avoid using saffron powder. Instead, ask them what the coloring strength was of the saffron powder with which they had such a bad experience.
Examine the container of the saffron you are considering buying to see if its coloring strength is printed anywhere. Coloring strength is expressed in degrees (190 degrees, for example). Even if the container says “Category I”, “Meets ISO Standards” or provides any other “category” name such as “Mancha Selecto”, but does not provide a number for its coloring strength, ask whoever is selling the saffron to provide you with coloring strength data. In a food store or supermarket, speak with a manager and ask him or her to get back to you with this information before you buy. In the case of a distributor who is not a direct importer, have your salesman go to the source for this information.
Ask the same question before buying either form of saffron: what is the coloring strength of this saffron? Saffron’s true value is in its coloring strength. The higher its coloring strength, the more intense its flavor and aroma as well and the further your product will stretch. If the seller does not know what you are talking about, or tries to tell you that coloring strength in saffron is unimportant, don’t buy the saffron. Call me!
Do not buy saffron with a coloring strength of less than 190 degrees if you want to keep saffron affordable. This is the minimum standard set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for Category I saffron (see also What is Saffron? section of this website). Saffron sold everywhere is often a mix from several countries so one, international standard helps to assure you of quality and value.
To keep saffron affordable, buy it by the ounce, whenever possible. By the ounce, my quality saffron will cost only a few cents per serving in most recipes. Buying saffron by the single gram could cost a dollar or more per serving. However, if you can only afford a gram, buy saffron in that quantity rather than attempting to leave it out of a recipe or thinking about “substituting” another herb or spice in the dish. Saffron has no substitutes and it would be better not to make the dish at all than to leave out the saffron. Annatto, curry powder, paprika, safflower and turmeric are not substitutes for saffron. Their properties are totally different than saffron’s.
Very complimentary flavors/textures for saffron are almond, apples, basil, bone marrow, dairy products, including non-fat versions, cilantro, cinnamon, citrus, fish stock, garlic, most grains, pistachio, potatoes, rosemary, thyme, tomatoes, vinegar and white wine.
The more complex the ingredients in a saffron dish, the more subtle or even indistinguishable the saffron flavor will be. To feature saffron, do not use other potent spices such as chili pepper or turmeric in the same dish. Even more subtle herbs and spices can wipe out saffron’s delicacy if they are used with too heavy a hand.
Trust your own instincts when it comes to determining how much saffron to use in your recipes. Use less powder than threads because the powder is more concentrated. Begin, for example, with an eighth of a teaspoon of my powder for a recipe for 4-6 people. If you want stronger flavor, add on from there. When using threads, try to envision a full teaspoon to begin with and add from there. The key with the threads is to steep them sufficiently before adding them to other ingredients. Taste is very individual and saffron, like many other herbs and spices, reacts differently depending on what you pair it with in a dish.
When determining how much saffron to use in baking, keep in mind that the saffron flavor will be stronger the second day.
Store saffron away from moisture and light. Kept in this way, it has a shelf life of many years.
Saffron absorbs other flavors/odors very easily. If you transfer saffron to a new container, make sure that the container is clean and odor-free.
When using saffron threads, begin your recipe preparation by steeping the threads to extract their essence for a minimum of 20 minutes in addition to cooking/baking time. This can be done in alcohol, an acidic liquid or a hot liquid. Saffron powder does not require steeping as the powdering process has already activated its essence.
Saffron does not “boil away” when it is added at the beginning of the cooking process. Threads continue to release flavor and aroma for 12 hours or more.
Saffron is water-soluble. Do not add it to fat in your cooking/baking preparation.
Avoid working with a whisk when using saffron threads as they get tangled in the wires, preventing you from distributing their flavor and color evenly in a dish.
Wooden utensils tend to absorb saffron easily so avoid using them when working with saffron.
If you want to dye cloth with saffron you must use a mordant such as alum to “fix” the color as saffron is water-soluble.