Flavor Investigator: Saffron

Easily priced as one of the most expensive spices in the world. Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus. “Saffron” to be specific is the stamens of the crocus, a plant which produces low yields. The flower only produces three stamens during the one-week period of the year it blooms. Furthermore, each stamen must be handpicked and dried-both time consuming and delicate processes.  To put this in perspective one gram of saffron requires 150 flowers and many hours of labor. That is a lot of work in the name of flavour!

The cultivation of saffron is believed to have dated back over 3500 years ago and was first used in the Middle East.  Today the greatest producer of saffron is Iran producing 76% of the world’s annual 300 tons.  It is able to grow in regions where there is chilling winters and warm dry summers.  The characteristic flavour of saffron is described as being hay-like, woody, medicinal, spicy, metallic, and bitter with notes similar to that of tobacco. 

How to Maximize the Flavour of Saffron

If you have decided to open your wallet and drop the money on saffron than it is imperative you handle it in a way that maximizes flavour. It has been discovered by San Román that the aroma, colour and flavour improve with time. One way to hone in on this is by dissolving one gram of saffron threads in one liter of warm (65°C/150°F) water. The mixture should be allowed to infuse for four hours as this ensures maximum extraction.  You will know when the extraction is completed when the stigmas are white as opposed to their red characteristic colour. Secondly, toasting saffron encourages the release of volatile flavours such as safranal. Safranal is a compound which is highly volatile in the presence of both oxygen and heat. Furthermore, heat causes the compound picrocrocin to convert into safranal further adding to the already present flavour. However, if you toast the spice in open pan you risk losing these volatile compounds but there is a solution. Toast saffron in a closed foil pack in your skillet that way the flavours won’t go into your kitchen air.

Flavour Compounds Responsible for Saffron

As mentioned previously, saffron has a hay-like quality and this a result of the chemical picrocrocin and safranal. Picrocrocin is a monoterpene glycoside found at levels of 4% in the fresh stigma. It has a bitter taste is one of the major compounds responsible for saffron’s characteristic flavour. Furthermore, it acts as a precursor for safranal. Safranal is yellow organic compound which is known for its woody, spicy, bitter, phenolic, camphoreous, medicinal and powerdry with an herbal undertone odour.  Safranal can comprise up to 70% of dry saffron’s volatile fraction in some samples.  Scientists believe the reason why saffron is “hay-like” is because of the presence of the compound 2-hydroxy-4,4,6-trimethyl-2,5-cyclohexadien-1-one, the most concentrated chemical for saffron’s fragrance.

Possible Unique Flavour Combinations

  • Saffron and Orange- The zest from an orange is aromatic, bright and sweet with an overall fruitiness. This pairs nicely with saffron’s inherent bitterness creating a strong punch of flavour. They can be combined in a sweet application like sugar cookies or in a broth for a delicate white fish.
  • Saffron and Rose- Both flavours have historical relations with the Middle Eastern Cuisine. Rose is floral can get overpowering if it is not balanced with something sweet. Fortunately, saffron is bitter and when the two come together they create a combination which could be thought of as medicinal. This combination should be applied to a dessert application.
  • Saffron and Rhubarb- Rhubarb has a beautiful tart and slightly floral flavour. It is hearty with a subtle woody note. This woody note comes out when you pair it with saffron.

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