Ingredients: Saffron

Saffron 1

I grew my own saffron this year!

I can hardly believe it myself, as saffron seems so exotic to me that surely it must thrive in only the most steamy, glittering regions of the world.

But, nope. My saffron was perfectly happy in a box planter fitted with some caging to keep out the critters, blooming like mad. In Ohio. In November.

As I wrap up my first year of hands-on experience with this flower — Saffron threads are the stigmas of a specific type of crocus — I wanted to share a little demystification of it.

Saffron 2

If you’ve used saffron before, then I really doubt I’m telling you anything new when I say that saffron is the world’s most expensive spice: 1/4th of an ounce can run over $100 — that’s a quarter of an ounce. (Compare to a typical 4 ounce jar of, say, pimenton (smoked paprika), for around five bucks.) The good news is, you don’t use much in a recipe; the bad news is, you still have to make that initial investment (I buy a gram at a time for about $12 — Penzeys is a good source for quality saffron.)

So this past spring, I researched growing saffron at home, here in the Midwest. The curiosity wasn’t really based in wanting to save money (it’s basically a wash due to the cost of the bulbs). It’s simply that at heart, I’m a gardener, and gardeners love the challenge of growing the seemingly ungrowable. :)

I was thrilled to learn that growing saffron is ridiculously easy — possibly the easiest crop in my gardening repertoire. The saffron crocus is fall blooming, and prefers to spend the winter and summer months resting in completely dry conditions. In fact, growers recommend that you plant them in pots that can be moved inside during the summer to protect them from the rain. (Yes, I said protect them from the rain — water of any sort is highly discouraged.)

Next fall, I’ll move the pots back outdoors so that the bulbs will reawaken and bloom again. Easy!

Saffron 3

I did learn, however, why saffron is so expensive. It’s not the growing; it’s the harvesting. Saffron flowers are quite delicate, and contain only three red stigmas each — the saffron threads — which must be removed by hand at a specific time in the flower’s one-day bloom cycle. Machinery cannot handle this — it’s humans-only and very labor intensive.

According to Penzeys, it takes an acre of land to produce just 5 pounds of saffron. That’s a solid acre of small lavender blooms, plucked by hand, carefully pinching out the stigmas. I swoon to the floor just thinking about the effort it must take.

Saffron 4

Even though I planted all of the bulbs at once, they bloomed over a period of weeks. So, just about everyday in November, I had to inspect the flowers morning and evening, pluck them at their prime time, and remove the stigmas. The threads are air-dried for a few days, and then they’re ready to use!

Saffron is used in small amounts to add color, fragrance and a deep floral-earthiness. A primary ingredient in risotto and paella (“primary” as in, important, not as in large quantities of), saffron is a background flavor that adds depth and character to many dishes, from rice to fish soup to ice cream. It’s been said that if you can taste the saffron in a dish, you’ve used too much. It should be more of an aromatic experience than a flavor. When a recipe calls for a pinch, it’s really just a pinch: grab 5 or 6 threads and crumble them into your brothy dish as it cooks, or steep them first in water, wine or stock. The deep red threads impart a gorgeous sunset yellow-orange. Irresistible.

Oh, and one thing I noticed the other day as I was prepping the boxes of saffron bulbs for storage: the plants have already begun dividing. Next year’s harvest should be quite substantial. (Squee!)


Comments

  1. Deb Harris says:

    I’m really intreaged after reading that. Never dreamed you could grow it never mind so easily. I will look at our gardening center & in catalogs. Thanks for the Information. Can’t wait to try it.

  2. Impressive indeed! And something to definitely think about taking on as a gardening challenge – wonder how it would fair in the California desert area? Great post and very informative!

  3. This is why you are my hero :-)
    She grows her own saffron…In Ohio. Enough said.

  4. Very cool! Like everyone else, I think of exotic lands when saffron comes to mind, not flower pots in Ohio! Lol! What a great experiment and results!

  5. Add me to the list of those impressed with your knowledge as a gardener and chef. Saffron has always seemed so wonderfully and wildly exotic. Although I’ve never used it, I do eye those interesting and tiny packages at World Market and think, hmmm, I should have one.

  6. How exciting to have your own abundant crop of saffron! Jealous!

  7. scarlettbelle says:

    wow! i love using saffron but don’t often because of the cost. would you mind sharing where you purchased your bulbs? i’m not a great gardener but love growing herbs and using fresh in my recipes. maybe i could try growing some saffron here in arkansas. thanks so much for all the wonderful recipes… i’ve tried several and all are a raving hit!!!

    • SoupAddict says:

      Absolutely, I’ll share! In fact, the first photo in this post is a shot of the bag of corms. They’re so cute – they look like miniature coconuts. :) I purchased these from AmericanMeadows.com (they’re probably out of stock right now, but they’ll be available to order in the spring). I was skeptical that I would get blooms the first year, but all of them sprouted and bloomed. And as I mentioned, they’ve already begun dividing.

      The flowers are beautiful and fragrant – a lovely dose of purple in the middle of Fall’s oranges and yellows. If I wasn’t growing them for culinary purposes, they’d be gorgeous in the ground (although I don’t know if they’d survive my unpredictably harsh winters).

  8. I absolutely love your site, one of my very favorites right up there next to Smitten Kitchen, but maybe what puts yours a little higher is the gardening aspect. Being an avid gardener myself who whole-heartedly believes that it is possible to grow the better part of what you eat, you encourage me more every day to branch out and grow and eat new things. Keep up the amazing posts!

    • SoupAddict says:

      That is so nice to hear, thank you! You know then, how completely satisfying it is to go a few steps out your door, pick a few things, and prepare an amazing and fresh meal. It’s addictive!

  9. So is the crushed yellow powder called saffron related, or just a misnomer? It’s nowhere near as expensive, so it’s always been a confusing differentiation for me. Beautiful photos!

    • SoupAddict says:

      I can understand – saffron is like most food items: there’s saffron, and then there’s saffron.

      Kashmiri saffron, for example, is highly coveted and probably the most expensive. Saffron from Spain is also quite lovely (this is what I usually buy). There, saffron is grown by gurus who nourish the soil specifically for saffron, and who divided their saffron in quality grades once harvested.

      SoupAddict’s saffron grown in a big plastic pot is probably not going to fetch a $100 a quarter ounce any time soon. (That would be soooo cool, though. :) ) But I’m quite happy with it.

      But, in all cases (as far as I know), saffron threads are red. You can’t really tell from any of my photos here, but saffron starts out red at the tip — okay, you can tell that — and stays red most of the way down. But once you get near the point where the thread is attached to the flower, it starts turning orange, and then yellow. These orange and yellow parts produce what’s considered to be inferior saffron (hence the frugal price of the yellow crushed – plus crushed saffron begins losing its flavor immediately and doesn’t last).

  10. Now I get to see your beautiful flowers! How lovely and what a great harvest.

  11. I am totally impressed!

  12. Hi there, I’m a little late to the party, but…I was just wondering how long it took from the time you planted them to get a bloom. Thinking of planting some this fall. Thanks!

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