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.
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!
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.
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!)