Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, is obtained from dry stigmata of the crocus plant. Saffron threads have a pungent and distinctive aroma and flavour – slightly bitter, a little musty, and with a suggestion of something floral.
Producing saffron threads is a labour-intensive industry, which is the reason saffron commands such a high price. Each crocus produces just three stigmata, which are hand-picked and then dried, and it takes hundreds of stigmata to make just one gram of the spice.
Saffron is best bought from a specialist spice merchant.
Usually, the deeper the colour of the threads, the better the quality. Deep red with orange tips is considered to be the best. If the tips aren’t orange it might indicate that the saffron is inferior and has been dyed.
Inferior saffron can also look slightly frayed and worn. If you’re buying saffron beware of cheap deals. Avoid anything that’s too yellow, as it is probably a fake. You can also buy ground saffron, but it loses its potency quite quickly and is likely adulterated in some form. You get what you pay for with saffron.
To draw out the colour and to ensure that it’s evenly distributed throughout the dish it’s to be added to, steep saffron threads in a little warm water or milk for about 30 minutes before using. Then add the liquid to the dish, usually towards the end of cooking.
A little saffron goes a long way, luckily. Too much, and the dish will taste too bitter or medicinal. There are no substitutes for saffron. Indian restaurants will often use turmeric or food colour to avoid the expense of real saffron.