Saffron may be the priciest spice in the spice aisle, but its unique flavor makes it worth every dollar. Best yet, because it has such a potent flavor, color and aroma, a little pinch goes a long way. Saffron is expensive because its brilliant red threads are the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus flower, which are literally hand-picked.
It takes 75,000 blossoms, or 225,000 hand-picked stigmas, to make a single pound of saffron.
According TheEpicentre.com, saffron has been revered for centuries. In Greek mythology, the handsome mortal Crocos fell in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax; she rebuffed him, turning him into a beautiful purple crocus flower. In the eighth century, Muslims introduced saffron to Spain, which is now its main exporter. Saffron was used to scent the baths and public halls of imperial Rome. Pliny wrote that saffron was the most frequently falsified commodity -- a fact that has been true throughout history.
Because of saffron's price, it is often adulterated with dried calendula or marigold. To be sure you're getting pure saffront, buy it in small quantities from a reputable gourmet spice purveyor. Purchase only if the threads are bright red; dull or discolored threads indicate age.
When you open a saffron jar, the dark honey-like aroma alone is enough to make you take notice. The saffron threads really come to life, however, when you steep them in hot water -- which is the best way to evenly infuse a dish with the spice's pungent flavor and brilliant hue. You can also crush the threads into a powder with a mortar and pestle, but steeping them in water (or even wine or broth) intensifies saffron's exotic flavor.
Popular in Mediterranean, Moorish, Asian and English cuisines, saffron fits especially well in seafood, chicken, rice and pasta recipes, but you can add it to breads, cakes and even ice cream, too. One taste of this exquisite spice will be enough to inspire you to find your own favorite culinary uses.
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