Saffron: Maximizing Flavor from a Costly Spice

“Most chefs don’t use saffron properly, so we don’t get the aromas and flavors,” says Maria José San Román, chef of Restaurant Monastrell in Alicante, Spain. “It takes time to get flavor from saffron.”

San Román has been working with researchers at the local university to understand saffron’s performance in the kitchen and develop innovative ways to use it.

“We discovered that saffron flavor, color and aroma increase with time,” says the chef, who dissolves saffron threads in warm (65°C/150°F) water—one gram of saffron per liter—and keeps the infusion warm for four hours for maximum extraction. The stigmas should be white at the end of the steeping time. “You shouldn’t see red,” says San Román, or the extraction has not been thorough enough.

“We get the best out of saffron,” she claims. “The color and taste are so different from what we thought we knew. I have never gotten results like I’m getting now.”

Spain’s saffron production and consumption declined dramatically during the Franco era as people’s incomes plummeted. Many rural people moved to the cities in search of work, abandoning saffron plantations. Today, Spain is working to revitalize saffron production and has received the prestigious denomination of origin for saffron from La Mancha.

“It’s so important to buy good quality,” says Patrick de la Cueva, manager of a century-old saffron firm in Spain. “I check what chefs are using in America and see that generally quality here is low. Buying cheap saffron is throwing your money away.”

Saffron is the stigma, or female part, of an autumn-flowering purple crocus (Crocus sativus). When the crocus blooms in late October, for a period of only two weeks, the plantations resemble carpets of lavender. Workers must harvest the flowers early in the morning, while they are closed, and remove the stigmas one by one, by hand. This painstaking process simply can’t be mechanized, which partly explains the high cost per pound. It takes 250,000 flowers to yield a kilo of saffron.

Toasting saffron before use heightens aroma. Put the threads on a piece of aluminum foil in a hot oven for just a few moments to revive it, then pound in a mortar or steep in warm liquid. Store unused saffron in a cool, dry place, away from light, and it will last for two years.

“If you add a little saffron to ordinary things, like potatoes, they can be delicious,” says San Román. “I like to marry it with fruit. Try lemon muffins with saffron. Open your mind.” At Monastrell, she also infuses saffron in olive oil—one gram per liter. “You don’t get any color at all,” says the chef, “but use it for a vinaigrette and you get the flavor.”

© 2019 The Culinary Institute of America