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Make the most of saffron

(article, Hank Sawtelle)

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How do you cook with saffron? I've read you have to render it with various items such as alcohol or milk to get it to work. In my experiments I've of course turned to alcohol and it does seem to work. But is this gratuitous? Is it necessary? Is there something else I should be doing instead?
— Valentina A., New York, New York

I know New York is a rough town, but turning to alcohol is never the answer, Val. Well, except in this case, but more on that in a bit.


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I can't blame you for wanting to get it right with saffron — it's the most expensive spice in the world ($3,700 per pound at my local grocery, in convenient 0.04-ounce packages), so we definitely want to get the most out of it that we possibly can. 

The sticker shock is due to the difficulty of producing it: Saffron is the dried stigmas (female reproductive organs) of a crocus (not Krokus) flower. (Yes, that's a stamen in my pocket, and I'm glad to see you.) 

The red-orange threads — three per flower — are plucked by hand and dried before packaging. Sources are all over the place with estimates, but conservatively, let's say it takes at least 14,000 flowers and 20 hours of labor to produce a pound of dried saffron. 

Because of its high cost, there's ample fake (safflower petals), adulterated, and second-quality (powdered) saffron on the market. Avoid these.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Saffron is the world's most expensive spice."] 

Saffron has a long history as a dye, medicine, and spice in southwestern Asia. It spread west to Spain and east to Kashmir, where it is still cultivated and used in cooking today (think [/recipes/collections/Contributors/Matthew+Card/Chickpea+and+Chorizo+Paella paella] and biryani), but most of the world's production is in Iran. 

Saffron infuses dishes with a bright yellow color and a distinctive aroma that's usually described as “hay-like.” I'm not in love with the flavor — I prefer the built-in aroma of jasmine or basmati rice, which is sometimes cooked with saffron — but I also don't hate it, and it definitely looks cool.

The deep yellow color comes from carotene compounds similar to the orange coloring in carrots. Recipes usually call for soaking the saffron threads in liquid before adding them to the dish to extract the color. The saffron pigments are mostly water-soluble, but food scientist Harold McGee writes that adding “some alcohol or fat in the extraction liquid will dissolve additional fat-soluble carotenoids.” 

This sounds a lot like the varied advice you've read, the vague uncertainty of which drives me bonkers, so I conducted a marginally scientific experiment to see if anyone in my house could tell the difference. Saffron is commonly cooked with rice, so I decided to experiment with that.

I made three 1-cup (before cooking) batches of long-grain white rice. For each batch, I soaked 0.1 grams (81 cents' worth, for those of you following along at home) of saffron threads (about half a teaspoon) in one tablespoon of liquid for 10 minutes at room temperature. The liquids for the three batches were tap water, milk (water plus milk fat), and vodka (water plus ethyl alcohol; yeah, I keep a bottle in the kitchen).  

Although each sample turned yellow, the surface tension of the water and milk seemed to inhibit the saffron from mixing in completely, while the threads sank to the bottom of the vodka and immediately started sweating wispy orange curls. (Hmm, saffron martini?)

After soaking, each batch was cooked in my rice cooker with the rice and one teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt. (The salt opens up the taste buds and amplifies flavors, although it turned out to be a little too much salt for one cup of rice — oops).

After cooking and cooling, I microwaved 3/4 cup of each sample for 30 seconds, to get them to the same approximate temperature. Then my family and I gathered to look at, smell, and taste the samples (this is where the non-scientific part came in).  

They all tasted about the same, which is to say, like saffron and salt. We also couldn't distinguish among the aromas. However, the appearance varied noticeably among the samples. 

Samples 1 and 2 (water and milk, respectively) had a mottled appearance, with some areas a deep yellow and some closer to white. No amount of mixing cured this uneven coloring. (Samantha, my four-year-old, declared sample no. 2 “kinda yucky-looking,” but further probing revealed that this was due to a couple of random red saffron threads she saw on top.) The fat in the milk didn't noticeably help at all.

[%image saffronvodka float=right width=400 caption="Vodka-soaked saffron yielded the most uniformly colored rice."]

Sample no. 3 — the vodka — had the deepest, brightest, and most uniformly golden color, leading me to conclude that alcohol really does extract more pigment from the saffron and/or somehow makes it more mobile among the cooking rice grains.  

As I was brandishing my notepad preparing to make more insightful observations about sample no. 3, Samantha promptly wolfed it down. She actually used her spoon, so it was hard to be too mad about it.

The bottom line: If you care about color, which for me is the main reason to use saffron in the first place, then soaking in alcohol gives the best results.

p(bio). Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

reference-image, l

saffronvodka, l