Whether or not you are into cooking Saffron is definitely one item you should try. But before that, it might be a good idea to start with the best quality Saffron, and I promise you that once you do, it will be difficult to stop. Now if you have ever wondered where the best quality Saffron comes from then you are in just the right place to learn more about those deep red strands that are like magic to any dish they season.
In this post I´m going to share with you what saffron is, how and where it’s cultivated, its history, processing, qualities, uses, and how to tell the difference between top quality saffron and fake or not so good one. Or even share the secret of choosing the best Saffron without extra time in your kitchen lab.
What is Saffron? Azafrán?
Saffron is the name given to the three dried, red-colored stigmas and part of the white style to which they are attached, of crocus sativus Linnaeus. A cultivated autumn-blooming purple flower crocus, a member of the iris family. The dried stigmas are known as filaments or threads; They must be rehydrated or powdered before use, to release all the properties they contain. Saffron’s history is extraordinarily long, its precise origin is unknown. It is exuberant, valuable, and complex. One of our oldest culinary companions.
Saffron, its name and origin.
Azafrán, Saffron, crocus sativus Linnaeus. The two words Saffron and crocus together with their derivative forms are recognizable in nearly every language ever spoken by men. Such universal usage indicates the extreme antiquity of their origin. They share a common resonance that has survived in near identical form since their inception. This is surely a remarkable dual coincidence perhaps unparalleled in the spheres of botany and etymology.
The saffron crocus is sterile and does not propagate my seat. It has to be cultivated and increased by the division of Cormlets (Little Bulbs), That form around the main corm. It has a much wider range than the wild crocuses from which it is believed to have descended. Another rare characteristic in a cultivated plant is that specimens collected from around the world are identical which suggests a common source for the saffron crocus.
Saffron in Spain. El Azafrán
Spain has a long tradition of cooking with saffron. It was introduced by the Arabs in the eighth and ninth centuries during the Caliphate of Cordoba.
By the end of the 10th century, the Moors occupation had made Spain the center of power and culture in Europe. In the countryside, they built intricate irrigation canals that made the dusty parched plains bloom with orchards, vineyards, and vegetable farms.
By far the best-known Spanish rice dish is paella, and it has nearly as many hard and fast rules as you can imagine. The moors did not introduce paella, yet without their culinary influence and their gifts of saffron and rice, it would never have been created.
Saffron production in Spain.
Castilla-La Mancha straddles the geographic center of Spain. It is composed of five provinces, Albacete, ciudad real, Cuenca, Guadalajara and Toledo.
The main saffron production extends over the central plateau, the Meseta, at an elevation of 1000 m. Because of the altitude, the climate is extreme, conditions in which saffron thrives. In summer the temperature is high for many months. In winter it will fall below freezing. The soil is composed of gravel, chalk, and clay, the loam is light. There is no shade over the saffron fields.
Spanish Saffron production vs exports.
Spain is the second exporter of Saffron after Nigeria. Nevertheless, the truth is that around 92% of the Saffron exported from Spain is packed in Spain while imported from other countries. Mainly Iran, Morocco, and Greece. The local production of Saffron in Spain has dropped drastically since the beginning of the XXth century.
So where does that leave Spanish saffron?
La Mancha Saffron PDO; Protected Designation of Origin
The saffron under the PDO La Mancha quality seal is the only spice of this nature with this recognition of quality in Spain. The specific requirements which must be met are included in the product specifications which have been approved by the European commission. All Producers and canners in the marketplace must meet the product specifications. And the conditions defined By the PDO La Mancha Saffron for the whole process starting with planting and ending with processing and storage of the product. An independent and impartial control agency verifies that the producers and canners, each in their area of activity, meet the product specifications. This control agency has been authorized by the competent authority and approved by the Spanish accreditation body ENAC. You can consult the document summarizing the requirements for La Mancha Saffron on their website, which is only available in Spanish.
What makes La Mancha Saffron one of the best in the world?
Harvesting and preparing Saffron in one region or another is not by itself a guarantee of its highest quality. On the other hand, if the cultivation, harvest, and processing of the spice are strictly controlled by specific standards, it offers a guarantee of the quality of the final product.
La Mancha Saffron product must comply with many conditions. And one of these requirements is to meet minimum thresholds for three parameters; Coloring power, aroma, and bitterness. These values for La Mancha Saffron are:
- Coloring power >200
- Croma power >20
- bitterness >70.
In some studies of samples from La Mancha Saffron, these values have almost duplicated the requirements but never stayed below the limit. This extremely high quality is what makes La Mancha Saffron so unique.
This presentation of La Mancha Saffron PDO seal constitutes a triple guarantee: maximum food safety, the highest threshold for the characteristics of color aroma, and flavor, and the Spanish origin of the product.
How to identify La Mancha Saffron ?
- The La Mancha Saffron is sold as strands only.
- It is available in packages of maximum 100gr
- The packaging displays the conformity marking owned by the regulatory counsel.
- La Mancha Saffron is never sold in bulk. .
How is La Mancha saffron harvested and processed?
Every year, during the last weekend of October, in a small town in La Mancha called Consuegra The “Saffron Rose Festival” is celebrated. This festival coincides with the picking of the Saffron rose. It celebrates the culinary culture of La Mancha region and it being the heart of Saffron production in Spain. This is a direct invitation for culinary lovers to drop by and live the Saffron experience firsthand.
The Saffron harvest.
The harvest season of La Mancha Saffron starts in the second fortnight of October and ends in the first fortnight of November.
Daily, and in consecutive rounds in the Saffron fields, the blooming Saffron flowers are harvested during the first hours of the day. Precise cutting of the flower by means of a strong and precise tweak is required to prevent the separation of stigmas.
The flowers are treated gently and are not stacked to conserve their quality, then they are immediately transported for processing in containers that allow for ventilation, and protect them from direct sunlight. Traditionally they were collected and transported in wicker baskets.
The separation of saffron stigmas.
The pruning of Saffron stigmas and their extraction from the saffron flower is carried out immediately after collecting the blooms. After the flowers are harvested they are spread out on a dry and absorbent surface. then the stigmas of the flowers are plucked manually by pinching the style where it is white. The extracted stigmas are placed in a container in preparation for the next step of processing, dehydration.
The separated saffron strands are dehydrated by exposure to neutral heat between 60 and 80ºC for a duration determined by the humidity level. This process is extremely crucial in saffron processing under the PDO La Mancha. It determines the moisture content, the coloring power, the aroma, and the stability of the final product.
When the toasted stigmas reach room temperature, they are placed in a hermetically sealed package and stored in a cool place away from humidity, high temperature, and light, to preserve their quality.
The DPO La Mancha Saffron packaging is reserved for the saffron produced in the preceding harvest campaign. The packages can never exceed 100 grams. They display the DPO La Mancha Saffron logo, the numbered Regulatory Council back label, the packaging, and use-by dates which never exceed 3 years from the packing date.
All packaging companies of DPO la Mancha Saffron are audited yearly to guarantee compliance.
Is saffron the most expensive spice on earth?
Saffron is a complicated spice to harvest. With only three stigmas per flower, you need more than 250,000 flowers to make one Kg of high-quality saffron strands. The whole process is highly labor intensive. Besides, any variation in humidity or temperature during the blooming season, however insignificant it might seem, can seriously compromise the crop.
Nevertheless, to say that Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world is far from true.
The amount that is used in cooking is measured by strands. For a rice dish like paella or a stew 7 strands per serving is more than enough. For desserts, depending on the recipe, you might need fewer or more strands than in savory dishes. If you take into account that 1 gram of Saffron contains between 450 and 500 strands, which translates into 50 to 150 servings, would you still say that it´s costly? while we grind black pepper and slice truffles on our favorite dishes only micrograms of Saffron are needed to perfume a whole casserole.
Saffron in the kitchen
Saffron is used in many Spanish traditional dishes, among which you can find the ever-famous Paella Valenciana, and almost any stew or soup in addition to numerous traditional desserts. How would you prepare risotto alla Milanese, a French bouillabaisse, or a byriani dish without saffron? But Saffron, as any other ingredient so profoundly linked to many international traditional dishes, has already found its way to modern cooking, Infusing butter, cheeses, sauces, and desserts. So don´t be shy and try it out in your next culinary creation.
How to use La Mancha Saffron in cooking.
An important thing to bear in mind is that you should never ever toast Saffron before using it in your cooking. The dehydration process as mentioned above already rids it of humidity and concentrates its flavor, aroma, and color. Toasting Saffron will only burn the strands, thus eliminating their coloring, aroma, and taste potential.
- Crushing the strands using a mortar or by hand with the help of nonstick paper.
- Crush the strands and then infuse them in hot water before adding them to the dish.
- Infuse whole strands sous vide, leaving them infused in an airtight container at 65ºC for 4 to 5 hours, and then use the infusion as required per recipes. You may keep it in the fridge or freezer for later use.
Other uses of Saffron
Saffron is this Trinity of actions in food, as an aromatic, a flavoring agent, and a colorant, which distinguishes saffron from other ingredients. Saffron also has a nutritive value, being one of the richest sources of riboflavin, vitamin B two. Modern Analysis has revealed many of the mysteries of its composition, a rich diversity of proven health-promoting nutrients. Its beneficial influence was noted by the earliest medical practitioners and sufferance use as a remedial agent continues to the present day, its efficacy has been confirmed by recent medical research. Saffron is also used by the cosmetic and perfume industries and in the distillation of alcoholic liquors.
Numerous studies have revealed that Saffron possesses cytotoxic, anticarcinogenic, and antitumor properties. Chemical analysis has shown the presence of more than 150 components in saffron stigmas. The more powerful components of saffron are crocin, crocetin, and safranal. Studies in animal models and with cultured human malignant cell lines have demonstrated antitumor and cancer-preventive activities of saffron and its main ingredients.
Biomedical findings have also demonstrated that saffron and its ingredients may be useful as a treatment for neurodegenerative disorders and related memory impairment, as well as an antioxidant in addition to its positive role in the immune system. And other studies support its use as a natural solution to combat depressive disorders.
The color of saffron
A startling yellow that was used to dye festive garments in India and was considered the color of royalty in ancient Greece. The delicate appearance of saffron belies its energy as a colorant, for concealed within the filagree stigmas is crocin a potent natural dye which in its pure form can color up to 150,000 times its own weight unmistakably yellow. The potential of category I saffron is to color up to 10,000 times its own volume strong shade of yellow.
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- Werle, Loukie. Saffron, garlic & olives. Tucson. Fisher books. 1999.
- PDO La Mancha Saffron official webpage.
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- Siddiqui, S.A.; Ali Redha, A.; Snoeck, E.R.; Singh, S.; Simal-Gandara, J.; Ibrahim, S.A.; Jafari, S.M. Anti-Depressant Properties of Crocin Molecules in Saffron. Molecules 2022, 27, 2076. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules27072076
- ENAC. ENAC accreditations are recognized in over 70 countries. This recognition gives Spanish organizations recognized support in international markets for the free movement of their products and services.