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Crocus sativus

From a dye for cloth to the most expensive spice

Folks who come to visit me often ask me what’s the most expensive spice. Saffron has the distinction of being the world’s most expensive spice and for good reason. Saffron comes from the Autumn Crocus, a small purple flower. The part that we eat, and the only part of the plant that is edible, is the stigma. This crocus only produces three stigma which must be picked by hand before the noon day sun hits the plant. The stigma are then dried. It takes over 14,000 stigma to make an ounce of Saffron. It would take an area roughly the size of six football fields to yield a pound.

With saffron, luckily, a little goes a long way. Saffron has a remarkable fragrance, aromatic flavor, and golden color when cooked. Before heat is applied Saffron is a bright red color. Thousands of years ago it was not only used in foods, but also in medicines and to dye cloth. A native of Persia, Saffron spread to northern India and the Mediterranean by the 10th century. It came to Europe following the Crusades.

Just enough in a dish and the flavor is superb. But, add two to three stigma too many and suddenly the dish is bitter. Saffron can be used in foods for both flavor and color. It is best if crushed just prior to use. You may want to strain the stigma once you have a golden solution from them, as they will stain whatever food rests against them. For example, it can make rice blotchy looking.

You should also infuse it into your other ingredients. It is best infused in the liquid called for in your recipe. The liquid should be very hot but not boiling. The more liquid the further the flavor will go.

Saffron may be purchased as stigma or powdered. But, be careful. powdered saffron looses its flavor very quickly and can be diluted with false saffron more easily. If you are out of Saffron and you are going for the color and some of the perfume, you might want to try turmeric. If you need color alone and aren’t concerned with the flavor, you may use annato seeds.