Saffron a species of crocus is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). A C. Sativus flower bears only three stigmas each the distal end of a carpel. The stigmas are dried and used in cooking as a seasoning and coloring agent. Saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spice by weight and native to Southwest Asia.
Saffron has a slight bitter taste and an iodoform – or hay-like fragrance resulting from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. A carotenoid dye, crocin, allows saffron to impart a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles.
The English word saffron is derived from the Latin word safranum via the 13th-century Old French term safran. Meanwhile, Safranum derived via Persian word zaferan. There are only 3 stigmas known as saffron threads per flower. Saffron is hand harvested hence prized high and very expensive. It takes about 13,125 threads to weigh one ounce. Saffron comes from Western Asia and most likely Persia. The crocus was cultivated in ancient Europe. The Mongols carried saffron from Persia to India. In ancient time saffron was used medicinally for food and as a dye.
A native of the Mediterranean, saffron is now imported primarily from Spain, where Muslims had introduced it in the 8th century along with rice and sugar. Valencia coup (coupé meaning “to cut” off the yellow parts from the stigmas) saffron is generally considered the best, though Kashmir now rivals this reputation. Saffron is also cultivated in India, Turkey, China and Iran. The name comes from the Arabic word zafaran which means ‘yellow’. The French culinary term safrané means ‘colored using saffron’.
Saffron has a unique flavor and due to its coloring properties is prized very high in the world. In India its color is considered the epitome of beauty and is the official color of Buddhist robes. Saffron was used to scent the baths and public halls of Imperial Rome. Pliny wrote that saffron was the most frequently falsified commodity, which has been true throughout history. The Romans initially brought saffron to England, though it was lost to them in the Dark Ages. It is claimed that in the 14th century a pilgrim to the Holy Land, smuggled back one crocus bulb in a hollow staff from which all English saffron supposedly descends. It is grown in great quantities in Essex, especially in a town called Saffron Walden, whose coat of arms includes three saffron crocuses. Francis Bacon wrote “it maketh the English sprightly”.
Saffron is delicate and thread-like, each measuring 2.5 – 4 cm (1 -1.5 in). Its color is a bright orange-red, and in high quality saffron this is uniform. Saffron bearing white streaks or light patches is inferior and when light specks appear in its powdered form it suggests adulteration. Saffron is strongly perfumed with aroma of honey and a pungent bitter honey taste.
As because of its expense, intense flavor, and strong dying properties a very little saffron is used for culinary purposes and the key is to distribute it evenly throughout the dish being prepared. It can either be crushed to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle or added into hot water, a pinch to a cup will create the desired flavor and color. Good saffron should expand on contact with the water and a cup should be sufficient for 0.5 kg (1 lb) of rice. Powdered saffron is added directly to the required ingredients of a dish, though we recommend against buying saffron powdered, as it is so frequently adulterated. The saffron should be stored in a cool dry place, out of the light.
Saffron appears in Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. Its most common function is to color rice yellow, as in festive Indian pilaus (pulaos) and risotto Milanese, where its delicate flavor make it the most famous of Italian rice dishes. It combines well with fish and seafood, as a key ingredient of Spanish paella as well as bouillabaisse. In England, saffron is probably best known for its use in Cornish saffron buns where it is paired with dried fruit in a yeast cake.
Saffron is also commonly known by various other names like zafran, kesar, khesa etc. Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma yielding compounds. It also has many nonvolatile active components, many of which are carotenoids, including zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various α- and β-carotenes. However, saffron’s golden yellow-orange color is primarily the result of α-crocin. The bitter glucoside picrocrocin is responsible for saffron’s flavour.
According to history it is said that the 17.8 metres (58 ft) monolith of Gomateshwara, dating to 978–993 AD, is anointed with saffron every 12 years by thousands of devotees as part of the Mahamastakabhisheka festival. In prehistoric places of northwest Iran, around 50,000 year old depictions of saffron based pigments were found. Saffron threads were woven into textile, used in dyes, perfumes, medicines and body washes. They were also mixed into tea, rice and sweets. The saffron is mainly valued for its uniform yellow color and used to aromatise wine.
Ancient Mediterranean peoples—including perfumers in Egypt, physicians in Gaza, townspeople in Rhodes, and the Greek hetaerae courtesans—used saffron in their scented waters, perfumes, ointments, potpourris, mascaras, divine offerings, and medical treatments. Most saffron is grown in a belt of land ranging from the Mediterranean in the west to Kashmir in the east. Annually, around 300 tonnes of saffron are produced worldwide. Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy, in decreasing order of production, are the major producers of saffron. Iran with its cultivation of different varieties is the largest producer of saffron with 93.7% of the world’s total production.
Kashmiri saffron is recognizable by its extremely dark maroon-purple hue, among the world’s darkest, which suggests the saffron’s strong flavor, aroma, and colourative effect. In India, saffron is used in giving a nice color to the suji halwa, pulaos, biryani and making the saffron rice. A pinch of fresh saffron is enough to enhance the flavor and color of the entire dish. There are many ways of using the saffron. The whole stigma can be added directly to the preparations, or oftentimes, the stigma are grounded and powdered using traditional hand mill and added to the recipes or a pinch of saffron is added to a cup of hot water and add this water to the dish.
It is also used in preparing sweet dishes in many Indian, Pakistani and Central Asian countries and is also used as a color flavoring base to ice-creams, kulfi, cakes and drinks. The saffron’s medicinal properties make it a valuable ingredient in many cuisines worldwide. Saffron contains many plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have anti-oxidant, disease preventing and health promoting properties.
This spice has many non-volatile active components; the most important of them is α-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which gives the stigmas their characteristic golden yellow color. It also contains other carotenoids including zeaxanthin, lycopene, α- and β-carotenes. These are important antioxidants that helps protect body from oxidant induced stress, cancers, infections and acts as immune modulators. The active components in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-oxidant, digestive, anti-convulsant. It is also rich in many vital vitamins including vitamin A, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin-C that are essential for optimum health.
The nutritional values per 100g of saffron are:
Energy: 310 Kcal
Carbohydrates: 65.37 g
Protein: 11.43 g
Total Fat: 5.85 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Dietary Fiber: 3.9 g
Riboflavin: 0.267 mg
Vitamin A: 530 IU
Vitamin C: 80.8 mg
Sodium: 148 mg
Potassium: 1724 mg
Calcium: 111 mg
Iron: 11.10 mg
Magnesium: 264 mg
Manganese: 28.408 mg
Phosphorus: 252 mg
Zinc: 1.09 mg