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January 2007

How To Use Saffron For Cooking

Saffron is an ancient spice derived from the crocus flower. It has been used for food flavoring and coloring for thousands of years. Saffron is widely considered as the most expensive spice by weight. Collecting the saffron thread is very labour-intensive, and the best quality saffron, which is dark red, can be very expensive. The saffron from the picture on the right is not the most expensive variety.

The flower that produces the saffron threads has been first cultivated in ancient Greece, but it has spread all over the Middle East, India, Spain and in more recent times in other parts of the world.

Saffron has very delicate flavor and appealing color, but its best properties are its great health benefits. The saffron thread allegedly has antidepressant and cancer-fighting properties, according to numerous studies.


Saffron threads

How To Cook With Saffron?

Although saffron is not the most popular spice in the Western hemisphere, there are many popular Eastern recipes that call for the use of saffron. It is mostly used with seafood (mussels, shrimp, fish), meats (lamb, chicken, oxtail), curries and even desserts such as fruit lassi. Some of the most popular recipes with saffron are Spanish paella, Arroz con Pollo, French Bouillabaisse, Lamb with yogurt and coconut milk, Seafood soups, Oxtail stew and Fruit lassi.

There are two basic ways to use saffron in cooking - you can either make an extract, or crumble the threads in your food. The first method is better for saffron rice, and the second can be used in soups, cooked dishes and desserts.

The following recipes are just a few examples of how you can cook with saffron:

Fruit Lassi - Ingredients: 2 cups natural yogurt; 1 ripe mango, banana, and/or papaya peeled and pureed; 3 teaspoons honey or brown sugar; 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, steeped in 2 tsp. hot water and strained; 2 cups ice water; 1 tbsp. lemon juice.
Recipe: In a blender, puree all the ingredients, including the steeped liquid from the saffron. Refrigerate the lassi for 30 minutes and serve chilled. You can serve the lassi on ice with a straw, if desired.

Easy Spanish Paella Recipe - Ingredients: 16 fresh mussels, washed and scrubbed; 1 teaspoon olive oil; 1 large onion, chopped; 5 cups water or chicken stock; 1 3/4 cups long-grain white rice, washed; 8 ounces chorizo sausage, sliced; 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled; 4 ounces medium shrimp, shelled and deveined; 2 cups frozen peas; 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper; 12 littleneck clams, scrubbed; sea salt to taste.
Recipe: Prepare the mussels by pulling out the beards that are visible between the shells. Set the mussels aside. Warm the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute for 4 minutes. Add the water, rice, sausage and saffron. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the rice is partially tender and there is still plenty of liquid remaining. Stir in the shrimp, peas and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a large shallow casserole or baking dish. Arrange the clams and mussels around the edge of the dish. Tightly cover with foil. Bake the paella in a preheated oven at 375 F for 30 minutes, or until the clams and mussels open and the rice is tender. Remove and discard any unopened clams and mussels.

Bouillabaisse - Ingredients: 1 lb. fresh mussels, washed and cleaned; 1 cup white wine; 1 1/2 lb. sole, cut in 1-inch pieces; 1 1/2 lb. snapper, cut in 1-inch pieces; 1 lb. medium shrimp, shelled and devained; 2 teaspoons ground saffron; 4 tablespoons butter; 5 garlic cloves, crushed; 2 onions, sliced; 1 ripe tomato, diced; 1 carrot, sliced; 2 stalks celery, sliced; 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg; 1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil; 1 tsp. fresh thyme; 1 bay leaf; 2 tbsp. soy sauce; 2 liters water; salt to taste.
Recipe: Wash the mussels and pull any "beards" they might have. Steam mussels for 3 to 4 minutes. Soak the saffron in warm wine and set aside. Melt the butter and saute garlic, onion, carrot and celery for 5 minutes. Add herbs, seasonings and soy sauce. Cover and cook for 3 minutes more. Add water and wine and bring to a boil. Add fish and shrimp. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve the bouillabaisse with toasted bread.

Saffron Rice - Ingredients: 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil; 2 cups long grain rice, rinsed; 1/2 small onion, finely chopped; 1 teaspoon sea salt; 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads; 4 cups water.
Recipe: Steep the saffron in 1 cup of hot water and strain. Heat the olive oil in a medium size saucepan, over medium-high heat. Add the rice and onion and saute until the grains and the onion turns translucent. Do not allow the rice to brown. Stir in the salt and slowly pour in the water and saffron extract. Cover tightly, and cook over low heat until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside, covered, for 5 minutes. Serve the saffron rice as a side dish or with vegetables.

Another, different way to enjoy the flavor of saffron and its health benefits is to use it in teas. I like to add a pinch of saffron to green tea, or ginseng and astragalus tea.

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Chef George Krumov
About the author: George Krumov is a Red Seal certified chef with many years of culinary experience working around the world in Europe, the Middle East, the cruise line industry and North America. In the last two decades he has headed the kitchens of several restaurants in Canada, and ran his own restaurant.

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