If you've come across a recipe calling for saffron threads, you might have been confused when you went to the store and found a tiny packet selling for five to seven dollars. Saffron threads, which require a lot of work to harvest, are among the most expensive spices in the world. Humans have valued this spice since ancient times, and once you know a bit about it, you'll understand why.
Saffron threads are a highly aromatic. According to the Epicurious Food Dictionary, the threads themselves are the stamens of a particular type of crocus. Each crocus flower produces three stamens; since 14,000 are needed to make a pound of saffron, and since saffron threads must be laboriously harvested by hand, it is the world's most expensive spice. Measured by weight, saffron is actually more valuable than gold, according to celebrity chef Alton Brown. Fortunately, you don't have to be rich to enjoy saffron; a tiny bit goes a long way.
Humans have used saffron threads since at least the Bronze Age. The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens website reports saffron is mentioned in ancient Egyptian writings as well as in the Old Testament. Though ancient people valued saffron threads for their flavor, our ancestors also used them to dye hair and cloth as well as to treat diseases. These cures weren't always appetizing; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden website mentions a dark-ages cure for jaundice that called for saffron, snails and earthworms.
Getting the Good Stuff
If you're going to spend your hard-earned money on saffron threads, you want to be sure you're getting the best possible quality. According to Alton Brown, some unscrupulous processors stretch their profits by failing to remove the flavorless yellow parts of the crocus stamen. That's why San Mames, president of Vanilla Saffron Imports and friend of professional chef and food researcher James T. Ehler recommends consumers avoid buying saffron threads that show any hints of yellow color. Saffron threads should be solid red.
Storing and Cooking With Saffron Threads
Like all aromatic spices, saffron threads lose their potency if exposed to light, heat and moisture. Keep them in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place, such as the back of a kitchen cabinet away from the stove and dishwasher. When you're ready to use saffron, Mames recommends slightly crushing it. Brown recommends crushing, then dissolving in hot--but not boiling--chicken broth or water, as the hot liquid helps draw out the flavor.
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