The most notable thing about saffron is the one thing that everybody knows: that it is the most costly spice in the world. The other important things to know are close to unknown.
The first generally unknown thing in that there are varieties of crocus sativus, and yes, from a culinary standpoint, it really does matter which you use.
Saffron is primarily grown in Kashmir, Iran and Spain. Secondarily, it is also grown in India, Italy, Morocco, and believe it or not, Pennsylvania and California US.
Kashmiri saffron is rated highest in flavor and color by International Standards Organization (ISO 3632)
Iran comes next, with Spain after that. There are also small regional producers of saffron in various countries, e.g., Italy with a level close to that of Kashmir. Most people, including most chefs, will never hear of them, much less get to use them.
Most recipes that call for saffron do not specify the saffron of origin, yet this makes a world of difference. If all that is wanted is colorizing agent, use turmeric in place of Spanish saffron; it is almost tasteless, and the turmeric is more flavorful and cheaper. Basically, Spanish saffron is a great waste of money.
The second generally unknown thing is that there are many frauds committed in the purveying of saffron; some depend on selling inferior varieties, others on padding the red-brown stigmas (which is the actual spice) with the yellow stamens, thus increasing the weight and diluting the spice of whatever biological variety. The third fraud is simply selling something entirely different (often safflowers, which don't even look like saffron) to the foolish and untutored.
The third, fourth and fifth things about saffron, that are most remarkably unknown, given its costliness, are how to keep it, how to prepare it, and how to use it in cooking.
Saffron has its own moistness, keep it sealed in a small space against being oxidized; similarly, keep it in darkness and out of temperature extremes.
Buy whole blades and keep the blades whole; powdered saffron is more easily ruined by oxidation. The blades should remain elastic; if they have not, you probably only have a colorizing item left.
Keep your saffron away from light, at a cool temperature, and in an airtight container with as little air as possible; this is all to cut down on possible oxidation. This rule should be followed for all spices and dried herbs.
To bring out the flavor (safranal) in the saffron, pull, tear, crumble or cut as best you can and toast it carefully in a heated dry iron pan set over a medium heat; be careful not to burn it. It will darken, become fragrant and brittle. Now is the time to grind it in a small mortar and pestle.
Before using this ground saffron, at the end of cooking the object dish, let it soak in a TBS of an appropriate cool to room temperature liquid for 45-60 minutes. In truth, it would be optimal to prepare the saffron a day ahead, and let the ground saffron to soak in an appropriate liquid in the refrigerator, or at room temperature, as might be appropriate, overnight.
When to add the saffron to the dish?
If you can, near the end of the cooking to avoid a degradation of it flavor/aroma. For example, if you want to make a beautiful and aromatic Saffron Rice:
First, Use the very latest generation of Japanese rice cookers. Who would be more fussy about their rice? They are smartly computerized to deal with just about any rice in any situation; the newest feature is uniform cooking by the heat being created by magnetic induction. TSC is greatly pleased with his purchase of Zojirushi model NH-VBC18, and equally pleased with the knowledge and service of the people at its distributor Pleasant Hill Grain.
Second, after you have your perfectly cooked rice, let's say about 1 cup of rice measured dry, cooked to the point of fluffing, use 4-8 blades of saffron that have been treated as above, and ground together with 1 TBS of cream (yesterday would have been good to do this), warm the cream, fluff the rice a bit, add the cream to the rice, and fluff well to distribute the saffron. Leave your smart rice cooker in its keep warm cycle, and do what ever else needs doing, or serve immediately.
Good luck and enjoy your saffron.
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