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Saffron (Recipe: pie-ella, improved)


Ten things I know about saffron (you'll be glad to know them, too):

  1. According to Greek mythology, Crocos, a good-looking mortal, fell in love with Smilax, a lovely nymph. But she wasn't interested, so she turned him into a good-looking purple flower. Saffron are the stigmas from that crocus sativus flower; there are only three stigmas per flower. If Smilax had liked Crocos more, she probably would have given him more stigmas.
  2. It takes one acre of crocus to yield 10 pounds of saffron; 70,000 crocus flowers to make one pound of saffron; approximately 13,125 stigmas to equal one ounce.
  3. The best saffron hails from Spain; good quality saffron is also grown in Iran, the Kashmir, Greece and Italy. And in Landisville, Pennsylvania. You can grow your own saffron, but at three stigmas per flower, you'll need a pretty large garden to grow enough to open a saffron stand in front of your house. (A saffron stand would be far more profitable than a lemonade stand, however. See #10, below.)
  4. Coupe, the top grade, is a rich deep color, with long, smooth threads. Mancha, the next-best grade and more widely available, is more orange-red in color. Look for threads that are uniformly deep red, not mellow yellow.
  5. Don't buy powdered saffron; it might be adulterated with turmeric or safflower. Both give a yellow color, but have a terribly bitter flavor. In the 15th Century, according to foodreference.com, any merchant caught selling adulterated saffron in Bavaria was burned alive. (I don't actually know if this is true, and I think the punishment is a bit harsh. However, having just cooked with some very poor quality saffron that my sister-in-law brought from Pakistan, I think people who sell adulterated saffron should be forced to eat it, and that would be punishment enough.)
  6. When red saffron threads are infused in liquid, they give off a golden color, the shade of Buddhist monks' robes and Christo's gates. Added early in the cooking process, saffron imparts more color; when you add saffron later, you'll notice more flavor.
  7. Both fairies and pharoahs love foods made with saffron. In fact, the ancient Egyptian rulers believed saffron was an aphrodisiac.
  8. Complimentary flavors and textures for saffron include almond, apples, basil, bone marrow, dairy products, cilantro, cinnamon, citrus, fish stock, garlic, most grains, pistachio, potatoes, rosemary, thyme, tomatoes, vinegar and white wine.
  9. Special dishes of many cuisines feature saffron; think of bouillabaisse, zarzuela, risotto Milanese, paella, biryani, saffron buns... even kulfi.
  10. It's expensive ($50 per ounce, or more, for the good stuff), but a little goes a very long way, and if kept in the dark and away from heat, saffron will last for a couple of years in your pantry. I store my saffron in its tin, and move a little bit at a time into a recycled mustard jar on my spice rack.


Pie-ella, improved

I made this wonderful dish twice last week. The first time the rice turned brown, a result of using inferior saffron. (Lesson learned: When your favorite sister-in-law returns from a business trip to Pakistan with a little baggie of saffron that she bought at a street market, thank her profusely -- but don't cook with it.) The second time, my friend Ben and I cooked together, and the rice turned a beautiful golden color, offset by the red and green peppers, olives, and shrimp. My photo doesn't do it justice. Serves 6.


1 large pinch saffron threads
2 Tbsp olive oil
3 hot smoked sausages (I use Beef Hot Links), cut on a diagonal into large chunks; you can substitute your favorite spicy pork sausage)
3/4 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into large chunks
1 medium red onion, cut in quarters
1/2 green bell pepper, cut into large chunks
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into large chunks
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock (I use Swanson 99%; if you use homemade, you'll need to add salt)
1 cup carnaroli or arborio rice
18 pitted black jumbo olives (use canned olives, because you don't want a strong flavor)
18 large (21-25 size) shrimp, peeled and deveined
Lots of black pepper to taste


Soak the saffron in 1 cup hot water for 15 minutes. Then, put on an apron -- the first steps in this cooking are messy.

In a 4- or 6-quart stockpot, heat the olive oil. Add sausage chunks, and brown all over. Using long tongs, remove sausage from pan into a small bowl. Add chicken, brown all over and remove from pan into another small bowl. The pan will be black and gunky, but don't worry -- this will all dissolve into the finished dish.

Add onion, green and red peppers, and sauté quickly until the onion is just translucent, about 2 minutes. Return the sausage to the pan, add the saffron water with saffron, wine and 1-1/2 cups of the stock.

When the liquid boils, turn down to low. Add the rice, stir once, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chicken back into the pan, along with the olives.

Now, don't stir for a while. Go away, drink some wine, make a salad.

Continue to simmer, uncovered, until the rice is nearly cooked, about 10 minutes or more. There should still be liquid in the rice, but not much. Run a spatula along the bottom of the pan to loosen any stuck bits of rice. Add the shrimp, making sure to stuff them down into the rice. Season with lots of black pepper.

From this point, you may have to use your spatula along the bottom of the pan every now and then to keep the rice from sticking, and if it is cooking too fast, add the remaining 1/2 cup chicken stock. Continue cooking until the shrimp are done, approximately 5 minutes or so. Serve hot.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Lamb tagine with prunes and apricots
Saag paneer
Pomegranate fish
Risotto alla Milanese
Paella a la Valenciana
Cheese phyllow triangles (tyropita)

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I love saffron, it makes almost everything taste better!

Oh yum! It's after 11pm and I'm hungry after reading this! I love saffron and I love paella.

Saffron is so much better in a paella it tastes that much better. Far better than the colouring people tend to use.

Hi Lydia,
it's been a while since I've last read your blog. Sorry for being so absent. I'm glad I clicked on your link, because your paella just makes me drool! Oh the ingredients you've used are superb!

Do you have a special paella pan? They are low and flat and come in sizes from small to huuuuge. I'm also a fan of pimenton in paella!

Great recipe! I especially like your step of putting on an apron... clearly I need that. By the way, the saffron also blends well with the rose water of a few days ago (with yougurt) for a lovely iranian slant.

There is a type of packaging in here I particularly like - in a tiny plastic box which is not much bigger than our pinkie's nail... very cute!

A mustard jar full! That looks like a lot more saffron than I ever buy at one time.

Now I know why I was so captivated by "The Gates!" When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the crocuses in our front yard. Now, I can't get enough of saffron. It is probably one of my favorite ingredients for its gorgeous color and deep, earthy aroma. Recently I came across a saffron cake, which sent me over the moon.

Lydia - but you know that if Crocos had received more stigmas, saffron just wouldn't have the same allure, flavor, or color. I love your top ten! and I love paella. Thanks.

I have used saffron only once at home, Lydia - time to do it again!

This has got to be my absolute favorite spice! I did hear though that Spain actually gets some of its saffron from Iran - I do not know how true that is but I do really like persian saffron and have not tried the spanish ones yet.

ooh it looks tasty. I LOVE the facts! Thanks.

Well, Lydia your photo is most excellent because now I have a craving for your pie-ella!

Mussels also go good in paella.

I use saffron in bouillabaisse (sp?) - it makes such a difference in the flavor of the broth!

My birthday is coming up next week and I am making paella for all my friends to celebrate! It's funny when your friends don't cook and you throw your own birthday parties...oh well, at least I'm doing what I want right?
Your recipe looks very good, and yes, you definately need good quality saffron, it's a must. I also add clams and mussels to my paella, my mouth is watering already!

I am a big saffron fan. I have a friend who used to bring it to me from Iran, but I lost track of him. I think your photo looks delicious!

oh the regal spice! i adore saffron and it's magic. a few great points you mentioned here!

I love your pie-ella; good to have a reminder to make it again. Hooray for Ben the chef! This post is fantastic, with so much information ( I wondered why the fairies were disappearing...will make saffron cakes immediately), fantastic photos, and great recipe.
Have you read Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice?

Terrific post, Lydia. And I think that your dish looks lovely, so I can only imagine what it would look like if it was in front of me. Only one way to find out :-)

Sara, what a lovely thought!

Fuji Mama, I love paella too, and this recipe is a tribute to paella, but made a bit more simply.

Recetas, I agree. There are some awful imitation saffrons on the market.

Stella, we've missed you, but how nice that you're back in time for pie-ella!

Alanna, I have several paella pans (no surprise; I have too much of everything), ranging in size from ones that fit in my oven (very important) to a giant one I use outside on the fire pit. The nice thing about this pie-ella is that you make it in a stock pot.

Julia, saffron and rose water sounds delicious, and I've never tried it. Must remedy that right away.

Gattina and Mae: I have bought saffron in those tiny packages, but it is so expensive that way. I like to buy the 1-ounce tin, and share it (and the cost) with friends.

TW, I loved The Gates, and will forever think of them when I see saffron in my pantry.

Peter, you're probably right. Mythology is funny that way.

Patricia, oh, you must use saffron more! I'm sure you will fall in love with it.

Veron, the quality of saffron varies so widely. I've actually heard that about Iranian and Spanish saffron, too, but don't know if it's true.

EB, I do try hard to unearth interesting tidbits for you!

MyKitchen, take my word for it, the photo does not reveal the fully golden color of this dish -- it is quite beautiful. I often serve it for company, and it's always impressive.

Nate, I always add saffron to bouillabaise, too.

Jason, I'm giggling because of course your friends will get the most wonderful birthday meal! This pie-ella can accommodate any kind of shellfish, so mussels would be great.

Kalyn, thanks. The dish is really luminous, and the photo not quite. I'll just have to make it again and try to photograph in different light.

Meeta, you're right -- it is magic!

Marcia, thank you. Now that the weather is cooling off, it's the perfect season for pie-ella. And it's always fun to cook with Ben, who is a sophomore in high school. He's a great sous chef. No, I haven't read this book, but will do so.

Nora, yes indeed, only one way to find out...

I have been toying with buying a bottle of saffron to try for a while now ... and see why it is the most expensive spice in the world! hehe your photo is nice! :D

I love saffron, and paella. I also love good looking mortals, great story!

Move over David Letterman, Lydia has a rockin' top 10!

Oh my...you've made me crave something, anything now, with saffron in it. While the paella looks good, perhaps some saffron risotto (I think I'm addicted).

paella without saffron is not paella! i love saffron..i heard that its expensive because of the difficulty of making them flower and the difficulty of harvesting them :-)

haha ... i didnt know the ancient mythology behind that , but thanks :)
I'm quite picky abt the saffron i buy too, mine usually come from Iran or Spain. The real stuff ... n u should see me with it, i use it like a real miser, as if it were the most precious thing on this planet :)
Love the paella !

Noobcook, it's not the most expensive spice because of the taste, but because of how it's grown and harvested. But there is nothing like it, so please try some.

Natashya, who doesn't love a good-looking mortal, really????!

Sandie, saffron risotto is one of the true tests of technique and ingredients. With inferior ingredients, it tastes like wallpaper paste. With good stuff, it tastes like heaven.

Dhanggit, it's true -- the cost comes from the fact that it must be hand-harvested, and that it takes a lot of acreage to make a small amount of saffron.

Kate, I confess that I'm partial to foods with a good story behind them, whether the story is real, or mythology... And the lovely thing about saffron is that you really only need a small pinch to make a big difference in your dish.

That looks beautiful and I am sadly too familiar with the low quality stuff. Nothing more disappointing than when the final dish takes on a sad rusty color when it should be glowing and golden. I've been debating ordering some of the really good stuff online, but I wince at the $50+ price tags...one of these days, maybe. This recipe looks like a delicious way to enjoy it!

that's a mighty big jar of saffron you have there! (no, that's not a come-on)

Oooh that looks and sounds so good. A simpler paella! Thanks Lydia.

No kidding! That many flowers to produce such a small amount of saffron. Wow.
I have never made paella. If I was going too, do you have to have one of those giantnormous paella pans? Or can you use something else?
Lovely and informative post. I'm so hungry now.

Actually that pie-ella (photo)looks great, I'd eat it several times a week as well. And really a nice sunny dish to eat as we head into fall.

That is a wealth of saffron info! My son Alex once tried to bring me saffron from Spain (he was on a school trip) and it was stolen from his luggage- along with all his music CD's! I bet someone made a paella that night- to Bruce Springsteen.

Mike, the first time I made this pie-ella to photograph, and used my sister-in-law's saffron, it came out looking like dirty rice. I was so disappointed. And the flavor lacked a certain brightness, too.

Michelle, now that's a line I haven't heard before!!!

Hillary, it's really an easy method. Doesn't get the soccarat (bottom crust) of a true paella, but I love the creaminess of the rice.

Dawn, you don't need a special paella pan, though the best ones to use are actually inexpensive carbon steel. You can use a frying pan, too (not a nonstick one -- a stainless steel pan).

Callipygia, we always hope for leftovers when I make this, but we seldom have much left!

Karina, hah -- a thief with good taste in food and music...

This looks absolutely delicious, Lydia. I think saffron is one of those spices that can be overwhelming. But when it's done right (as I'm sure it is here), it is divine.

my favourite spice. if i had to have just one aromatic in my pantry, i'd pick this.

Susan, there have been times -- but not many -- when I've used a very large pinch of saffron, and the flavor was a bit much. But fortunately the cost of saffron usually makes me very careful!

Bee, saffron is one of the spices that is worth every penny it costs. There's nothing quite like it.

Great post! Very informative. I teach culinary arts at our high school, and I'm always looking for new ways of getting this stuff across to my kids. This is a beautiful site!

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