Saffron has made a name as the world’s most expensive spice. Almost everything about it has become iconic: its bright purple flower containing the stigma that becomes the saffron thread, down to the yellow powder extracted from these thin crimson threads.
Despite its fame as a coveted spice, most people are unaware of how to use saffron thread aside as an additive for recipes to harness its subtle flavor and aroma. If you have a couple of saffron threads with you, here’s what you need to know as well as other ways to use it.
- Saffron remains the world’s most expensive spice and is used for various applications aside from being a food additive.
- A saffron thread, or the stigma of the saffron crocus flower, are mainly used for most of these applications. The “threads” are usually dried, ground, and mixed with water.
- Other applications of saffron threads include dying fabrics, while its health benefits are used for different applications in medicine and cosmetics.
Aside from being an additive for dishes, there are other food items where saffron thread can be used. You can source your own saffron through online stores instead of finding specialty restaurants that serve them. Generally, you can start with taking a pinch of about 15 to 30 saffron threads. Grind it into a fine powder using an electric grinder or the good old mortar and pestle. Depending on your intended application, you can add a small amount of salt or sugar to add flavor and act as an abrasive. You then add a little hot water to the ground saffron to make a concentrated liquid, which then let sit for about 15 to 20 minutes. Afterward, you can add to the following:
Cook the basmati rice as you normally would, and once it’s cooked, set aside a cup or two. Add your saffron water– the liquid from grounded, mixed, and steeped saffron thread to the rice you’ve set aside and mix until golden. Be sure to remove any bits of the saffron threads. Once the rice turns completely golden, you can put it on top of the rest of the white rice. Other ways of cooking saffron rice involve adding the saffron water directly into the rice as it starts to boil.
The aroma and flavor of saffron varies depending on the preparation and the quality of the saffron threads. Still, it adds a great earthy aroma to a glass of milk. Simply add a pinch of your finely ground saffron threads to your hot milk to create a delicious and aromatic saffron milk.
Did you know you can use saffron threads to create organic dye for your clothes? It has been traditionally used as a fabric dye in China and India and even signified status and power. To use as a dye, increasing the concentration of the materials yields a color getting closer to red.
While the traditional process involves drying batches of the saffron flower and boiling them, the saffron threads alone can create the bright yellow-orange hue even in small amounts. Extracting the dye from your own batch of saffron will require the same level of hard work: drying a bunch of saffron threads, grinding them, and adding them into a container of boiling water, preferably a pot. This will require trial and error since the range of yellow to orange depends on the concentration of the saffron you have.
However, naturally-made saffron dye quickly fades from a bright yellow-orange into a pale yellow hue. Additionally, the plant’s increasing prices have forced industries worldwide to find cheaper alternatives with varying success. Saffron’s food alternatives like safflower and turmeric yield a bright yellow hue. However, these supposed alternatives remain visually different from the dye derived from authentic saffron threads.
Surprisingly, the chemical that gives saffron its unique and vibrant color–a compound known as carotenoid crocin–has been discovered in the cheaper and less popular gardenia fruit, locally known in Korea as chija. The plant is slightly bitter and has a deep orange hue, being used in Asian nations for dyes and medicine. Additional studies are being conducted to make the gardenia fruit a viable alternative.
Medicine and Healthcare
Keeping a few saffron threads could help alleviate some diseases, thanks to the health benefits of saffron. As a home remedy, saffron has been used to treat asthma and cough by acting as an expectorant, making phlegm loose and easier to expel. However, saffron extracts have been used as an active ingredient in treating other conditions such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease: the prescription drug called Impiran contains saffron and was found to effectively treat Alzheimer’s similar to the conventional medicine, Donepezil. This was supported by a 2021 report in the Current Neuropharmacology journal.
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): people suffering from PMS could find some relief by taking supplements based on saffron extract, as demonstrated by a team of Iranian researchers.
- There are many other diseases that saffron supposedly helps–insomnia, cancer, male pattern baldness, and depression being some of them–but currently lack sufficient scientific evidence.
The same extract from saffron threads has also been found to help reduce appetite, making it a prime ingredient for dietary supplements. A 2010 study in the Nutrition Journal showed that women take saffron-based supplements for eight weeks. By feeling full, they ate fewer snacks and helped in their weight loss.
Similarly, extract from the threads can also be used for skincare and cosmetics. The crocin in saffron contains antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress on cells and neutralize free radicals. The same compound helps protect from UV rays and could help fight inflammation.
Additionally, saffron threads are used in histology as they contain specific chemicals used as tissue stains–materials added to biological samples to make them more visible when examined under a microscope.
However, while there’s a lot to the health benefits of saffron, take note that it should only be consumed in small amounts. Health experts strongly recommend against going more than 5 grams at a time as it could lead to saffron poisoning, which includes yellowing of the skin and eyes, vomiting, dizziness, and more.
Saffron is a plant product that’s rich in history and cultural significance. Its vibrant pigment and its host of health benefits have pushed people to find a wide variety of uses for its flavor-rich part: the saffron threads. Aside from being a plain spice for flavor and aroma, a saffron thread can also be used on other food items. Saffron is also used to add colors to fabric and cure a number of diseases.
Despite the plant’s rising costs, perhaps an increased demand for the saffron by identifying more uses for it could also help drive conservation efforts–not only preserving the plant as a species but also the culture and livelihood that revolve around it.