In the Iranian kitchen, the dizzying aroma of sweet saffron mingled with the warm, nutty scent of perfectly steamed rice is a time-honored call to the table. Even though it is known as the world’s most expensive spice, saffron is ubiquitous in Persian cuisine and infuses a wide array of dishes with soul.
We can all welcome saffron into our kitchens frequently and fearlessly by taking cues from Iranian home cooks, who use the spice regularly, economically and wisely. If treated properly, a small pinch can brighten and perfume savory and sweet dishes and drinks.
Ancient Persians, among other early civilizations, treasured saffron for its healing, mood-enhancing and decorative virtues and, later, its culinary ones. Ever since, saffron has left its gastronomic mark across the globe.
Harvesting saffron is extremely laborious, hence its high cost. Saffron comes from the Crocus sativus plant, which produces two flowers, each one with three stigmas (saffron threads). The delicate flowers are harvested by hand in the fall and must be picked in a matter of hours each morning before they wilt. The stigmas are then hand-plucked and dried. It takes about 200 flowers to produce 1 gram of saffron.
Thankfully, only a little of saffron is needed to flavor a dish. In fact, too much can make a meal bitter. In Iranian cooking, whole threads are rarely used. Instead, to stretch saffron and make its use financially feasible, cooks grind the threads with a small pinch of sugar or salt, which creates friction, to yield a fine powder. This is commonly done in a mortar and pestle, though larger quantities are often pulsed in a spice grinder, then stored in an airtight container for ready use.
The ground saffron is then steeped in a process similar to brewing tea. After water comes to a boil, it is left to stand for two minutes so its temperature drops slightly. A few spoonfuls are added to the ground saffron to bloom and draw out its flavor, color and perfume. According to traditional Persian medicine, this process is believed to also activate saffron’s medicinal properties. Pouring water at a rolling boil over saffron has the opposite effect, scalding the fragile spice. In Iranian folklore, it is said to kill saffron’s soul. No one wants to do that.
The saffron water can then be used right away in recipes like salmon kababs or grilled chicken, or it can be covered and kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days without losing its potency. Avoid buying inexpensive bottled saffron water as it is most likely adulterated with food coloring, turmeric, paprika or safflower. There is no ingredient that can be substituted for saffron to replicate its rich, floral, sweet and earthy flavor, intoxicating aroma and warm sunset hue.
Saffron — and the ritual of preparing it — respects tradition, history and, more important, the love, care and toil that go into its harvesting. So when you pour your saffron water into your dish, make sure there isn’t a single speck of the liquid gold clinging to the bowl’s sides. If there is, drizzle in a little more water, swish it around and add it to the dish. Or, knock it back as a drink, with a toast to your health — and to saffron’s soul.