Crocus sativus pronounced [SAF-ruhn] is the world's most expensive spice. Saffron are the stigmas from the crocus sativus flower (see image below).
There are only 3 stigmas (referred to as saffron threads) per flower. Saffron is hand harvested so you can understand why it is so prized and so expensive. It takes about 13,125 threads to weigh one ounce.
Saffron comes from Western Asia and most likely Persia. The crocus was cultivated in ancient Europe. The Mongols took saffron from Persia to India. In ancient time saffron was used medicinally and as well as for food and as a dye.
One of the reasons we wrote this article is because we were trying to research equivalents between powdered saffron and whole threads. In the process we learned:
Amounts used in common recipes
The most important rule is "don't use too much". A very little bit of saffron goes a long way and if overused becomes overpowering and leaves a "medicinal" flavor.
There are several ways to prepare saffron for use. Consult your recipe for specific recommendations. Basic methods include:
You may use turmeric as a substitute for saffron's coloring properties but not for the flavor.
Safflower flowers can be used to offer some color to foods but no flavor. Safflower is frequently confused with (and sometimes passed off as) saffron. Another reason to buy from a reputable source.
Spain is the premier producer of Saffron. The quality is based on even coloration, percentage of floral waste and percentage of flower "styles" (waste and styles add weight but no flavor or coloring power).
Coupe - lowest production, very hard to find. Mancha - The best "available" Stigmas are deep red. Rio and Sierra have more yellow and lighter color threads and considerably more waste.
Saffron crocus flowers - james holtz