When it comes to buying specialty ingredients one of the most special of all is saffron. This red coloured spice is officially the world’s most expensive spice, and evidence of its use dates back over 50,000 years, with saffron-based pigments being used in prehistoric locations across north-west Iran.
For well over 4,000 years saffron has been used to treat almost 100 different illnesses, and it has been a spice used in a wide range of ways, from cooking to perfume, from dyes to medicines, and much more. Alexander the Great used saffron to treat battle wounds, and during Henry VIII’s reign ladies of the court used to tint their hair with saffron.
The reason why saffron is such an expensive specialty ingredient is because of how difficult it is to gather. Saffron comes from the saffron crocus, each of which has only three stigmas. One single ounce of saffron is equivalent to about 14,000 of these tiny stigmas, each of which must be hand-picked from the very middle of the flower. With well over 4,500 crocuses required for each ounce of saffron, it’s evident why it is so expensive.
But the quality of saffron can vary, and when choosing this spice it will be important to consider its colour. Generally you will be looking for saffron to be a good red colour, the redder the better, although the tips will be a slightly more orange colour. Without this slight orange tint at the end of each of the threads there is a chance that what you are looking at is actually cheap saffron which has being falsely coloured to look more red, and therefore more expensive.
When buying specialty ingredients it is important to be aware of how to choose the best quality ingredients, as well as knowing how to use them most effectively. For example, when cooking with saffron it’s important not to use wooden utensils. The reason for this is because the wood tends to absorb the saffron, which significantly reduces the intensity and strength of the flavour it imparts to the food.
Another tip worth knowing is that if cooking food which will be kept for another day, the saffron will be stronger on the second day. For this reason you may wish to use a little less than you might otherwise.
Another piece of advice worth knowing with this specialty ingredient is that saffron requires heat in order to release its flavour, and it needs to be soaked in hot water, or other warm liquid before it is added to the food. Not only does this ensure the flavour is imparted properly, but this soaking of saffron before being added to the food helps to ensure that its colour disperses throughout.