Origins & Information - Saffron (Crocus)

Image source: German-language Wikipedia | Photographer: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz

Some days we look at ingredients and wonder why the heck they are so dang expensive. There are some givens that the general public have accepted as, "It's always expensive," but we're more interested in the why. There are a variety of reasons for the price of certain foods - for example, did you know that lobsters were once so abundant and cheap that they were used as prison food? Caviar used to be set out in bars instead of beer nuts until the sturgeon was over-fished. Since Duc has been into farming lately, he researched and sent information on what saffron is and how to grow it.

First things first, what is saffron? Surely you've heard the name before.
It's a spice used sparingly in the culinary world so you might find it in fine dining and recognize its distinct yellow color. Dark red threads may be dotted in your saffron rice or feathering the edges of a sauce. Part of knowing what it is, however, is not just what it's used for; you should also know where it comes from. The spice is actually the dried stigma of Crocus sativus (more commonly known as the saffron crocus), a part that must be delicately handled. The flower only produces three of these crimson threads and blooms one week of the year. So yes, it's a bit rare.

The amount of labor needed to commercially produce these low-bearing flowers and process the saffron is tremendous. Each thread must be hand-picked carefully and safely dried before being sold. It takes 150 flowers or more to yield just one gram of saffron (75,000+ flowers used for a pound). The wholesale price is $70/ounce and between $2,000-$10,000 per pound. This makes saffron the most expensive food in the world, and Iran produces 90% of the world's supply of saffron. Other areas one might find authentic saffron include Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvanian Dutch reside and use the spice in local trade and everyday food.

Spanish Style Spareribs with Saffron Rice | My recipe linked here.

As with any other expensive good, saffron is often imitated. One immediate way to spot the fakes is to look at the price; if you're able to buy a few ounces for just a few dollars, you are probably not buying the real deal. Sometimes the pistils instead of the stigmas of the crocus are sold as "low-grade saffron" but check for the true physical characteristics - threads are even, fine, crimson, and trumpet-like on one end with a thin yellow tendril on the other. You could even try sniffing a bag to test; fakes usually smell of chemicals. If you're able to test threads, agitate them in water to check color and shape. The water should be a clean and vibrant yellow, and the threads should stay crimson and in shape (here's a video also showing this). Even if you aren't worried about getting taken advantage of with money, beware faux saffron just in case they are toxic. The "fall blooming crocus" group comes from the Colchium plant genus, produce six stigmas instead of three, and can be toxic!

In terms of buying, opt for Iranian saffron if you have the money for quality. Hard to find, hard to grow, and banned from international export, this valued spice is rare and a treat. After that, you could look to Spanish saffron which comes in different grades (coupe, superior, La Mancha, and Rio) with coupe being the best, having the most crocin (saffron oil). Saffron also grows in Pennsylvania so don't forget that American saffron is available too. As a general rule of thumb, always buy whole threads so you can check authenticity and get the most out of the saffron.

All of the spice side of the saffron being said, we looked into how to grow it as well. I was fascinated by its culinary use but Duc had his eyes set on cultivation and farming. Crocus sativus luckily grows well in Zones 6-9 (the lower half of the USA) and is an easy flower to manage. Disease and insect resistant, it hardly requires a great green thumb and produces beautiful flowers and evergreen leaves all autumn and winter. Harvesting usually occurs in the fall and is a product of patience; the first harvest of 50 bulbs can easily yield less than a tablespoon. However, every year you maintain the flowers, the more you'll reap. Just remember to divide them every few years to increase crop and grant growing space.

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen

Planting is simple - start bulbs/corms 6" apart and 3" deep in the summer. The soil must be well-drained and nutrient-rich. Don't let them "drown" and rot by overwatering. If you plot it out carefully, a 2' x 5' bed can hold 50 bulbs/corms. Sun is a must, and some say that the best way is for it to be facing south. They'll start being ready for harvest in the fall. Each bulb/corm produces several flowers which you can pick from or just pull up whole. Stigmas can be cooked immediately or dried to store (dry on a paper towel somewhere warm and dry for a few days before placing in an airtight container). Apparently, Pennsylvanian Dutch farmers who harvest saffron also make highly prized and gorgeous containers.

So there you have it - a heck of a lot of information on saffron and crocus! Right now, Duc's setup is all hydroponics-based and indoors so we won't be starting crocus soon but it is certainly on our minds for the future. I would love to have fresh saffron of my own to play with in the kitchen. My thanks to Duc for digging up all this research on the beauts. Hope it was helpful for you all as well! If you have any favorite saffron dishes to share or any gardening stories of your own, we'd love to read them.