What is saffron?

Saffron is a spice from the Crocus sativus flower, which is a cousin of the lily. The saffron derives from the stigma and styles — called threads — within the flower itself.

Saffron is very expensive due to the difficulty of harvesting it. Farmers must harvest the delicate threads from each flower by hand.

They then heat and cure the threads to bring out the flavor of the saffron. This extra labor makes saffron one of the most expensive spices in the world.

buy saffron

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. It's derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus and has a deep auburn color and sweet flavor. The stigmas can only be picked by hand and it takes 250,000 stigmas to make just half a kilo of saffron, hence its high price. Fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way.

Saffron, contains minerals, mucilage, fat, wax, and aromatic Terpenic Essential oil with a ‎few cineol, such as picroretine, picrocrocine, and crocin. There is 10 to 16 percent water, 5 to ‎‎7 percent minerals, a few Gloside, 5 to 8 percent fat, and wax, 12 to 13 percent protein with a ‎few essential oils that make Saffron more delightful and produces a stronger smell. ‎

Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. A C. sativus flower bears three stigmas, each the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles — stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant — the dried stigmas are used in cooking as a seasoning and coloring agent. Saffron, long the world's most expensive spice by weight, is native to Southwest Asia in particular, Iran, and recently from Spain.

Color of saffron 
The main color substance of Saffron is a compound called crocin, with the chemical formula C44 H64 ‎O24. Crocin is a rare and natural water-soluble carotenoid, it dissolves easily in water. Owing ‎to this solubility, Saffron, comparing with other carotenoids, is gradually used in the food and in  ‎medicine as coloring materials.‎

Besides crocine, Saffron contains free aglycone crocine and a few anthocyanin pigments, as well ‎as oil-soluble pigments in terms of lycopene, alpha-carotene, beta carotene, and zeaxanthin. ‎Saffron coloring power is one of the main determining parameters in deciding the quality of Saffron ‎and is evaluated by the number of its colorant components with a spectrophotometer at the ‎wavelength of 443 nanometers.‎ 

Crocin (C44 H64 O24) is the most influential chemical in the coloring power of saffron. It is a rare carotenoid found in nature that can easily dissolve in water. In comparison to other carotenoids, crocin has a wider application as a colorant in food and medicine, mainly because of its high solubility. This substance was first discovered by Solomon and Carrara in crystal form. These scientists have done a number a researcher on the structure of
crocin and identified it as follows: Other than crocin, saffron is also made up of free aglycone crocin and a small number of anthocyanin pigments. The oil-soluble color pigments include lycopene, alpha-carotene, beta carotene, and Zeaxanthin. The main parameter in deciding the quality of saffron is its coloring potential which can be measured by the number of its colorant components with a spectrophotometer at the wavelength of 443 nanometers (Habibi and Bagheri, 1989; International organization for standardization (ISO) 3632-1 1993).

The taste of Saffron 
Taste of Saffron is formed by a major component--bitter taste glucose, by means of ‎crystallization under the title of picrocrocin with C16 H26 O7 chemical formula, acid hydrolysis ‎produces glucose and aldehyde that namely Safranal. ‎

Safranal is the main aromatic substance and makes up about 60 percent of the volatile components ‎of Saffron. It is free as nonvolatile picrocrocin in fresh Saffron, but due to heat and time, it will be ‎volatile aldehyde of Safranal.‎

Safranal is a volatile, oily liquid with a light yellow spot. This oily liquid dissolves easily in ethanol, ‎methanol, ether, and oil. By means of distillation under releasing CO2 gas, ether oil is separated ‎and evaporated finally, the remained oil is a yellow liquid that has a strong aroma of Saffron. As this ‎substance is part of terpenes, it is very sensitive against oxidation, therefore, must be kept in ‎special condition.

Saffron, the dried orange-red stigmas of Crocus sativus L. flowers, is widely used in coloring and flavoring of foods. The freshly picked stigmas are nearly odorless, with typical saffron flavor being developed during the drying process. In particular, safranal, the major constituent of the essential oil of saffron, is formed by hydrolysis of the bitter glycoside picrocrocin. In addition to picrocrocin, there are numerous other glycosides that may undergo hydrolysis to yield a complex array of compounds that comprise the volatile profile of saffron.

Glucose known as picrocrocin (C16 H26 O7) is the major factor for the bitter taste of saffron. This bitter substance can undergo crystallization, through acid hydrolysis, producing safranal (glucose and aldehyde)

Saffron Aroma:
Safranal is an organic compound isolated from saffron, the spice consisting of the stigmas of crocus flowers (Crocus sativus). It is the constituent primarily responsible for the aroma of saffron.
It is believed that safranal is a degradation product of the carotenoid zeaxanthin via the intermediacy of picrocrocin.

Saffron Substitute
There is no substitute for the flavor and aroma of saffron. The saffron crocus is the only crocus which can produce the saffron spice. 

Saffron substitutes include: 
Turmeric, which is a yellow spice, purchased usually in powdered form, though before grinding closely resembles the ginger root. It delivers some of the same color and a little of the flavor of saffron, perhaps at a cheaper cost. Low-cost saffron below the market price is usually found as ground saffron and they are mixed with some Tumeric to pass as saffron. For this reason, it is not advisable to purchase ground saffron from dubious sellers.

Also, there is Safflower is a thistle-like flower that has seeds that produce edible oil and birdseed. The flower was traditionally grown for its red dye. Its appearance and color closely resemble saffron, though it delivers little of the saffron taste. Some sellers sell this at relatively high prices to buyers that assume they are buying cut-price saffron.

Chemical Composition:
Saffron's bitter taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. Saffron also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles.

The etymology of Saffron:
The name comes from the original Persian (Farsi) that is pronounced as Za'farān or Za'faron ( زَعْفَرَان ). The English word saffron stems from the Latin word safranal via the 13th-century Old French term Safran. Some argue that it ultimately came from the Arabic word زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), which itself derives from the adjective أَصْفَر (aṣfar, "yellow"). However, some etymologists argue that زَعْفَرَان (za'farān) is the Arabicized form of the Persian word زرپران (zarparān) — "having golden stigmas". Latin safranum is also the source of the Italian zafferano, Portuguese açafrão and Spanish azafránetc. Crocum in Latin is a Semitic loan word derived from Aramaic kurkema via Arabic kurkum, and Greek krokos.

Biology of Saffron:
Saffron crocus is wild in nature and the domesticated (Crocus sativus) is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. It is often mistaken for the more plentiful common autumn crocus, which is also known as meadow saffron or naked ladies (Colchicum autumnale) and has been the cause of deaths due to mistaken identity. 

Saffron is a high dosage that can also be poisonous. It is a sterile triploid form, possibly of the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus that originated in Central Asia (Iran). The saffron crocus resulted when Crocus cartwrightianus was subjected to extensive artificial selection by growers seeking longer stigmas. Being sterile, the purple flowers of Crocus sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction of saffron depends on human assistance: corms, underground bulb-like starch-storing organs, must be dug up, broken apart, and replanted. A corm survives for one season, producing via this division up to ten "cormlets" that grow into new plants. Corms are small brown globules up to 4.5 centimeters (1.8 in) in diameter and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibers.

After aestivating in spring, the plant sends up five to eleven narrow and nearly vertical green leaves, each up to 40 cm (16 in) in length. In autumn, purple buds appear. Only in October, after most other flowering plants have released their seeds, do its brilliantly hued flowers develop; they range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve.  Upon flowering, plants average less than 30 cm (12 in) in height. A three-pronged style emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma 25–30 mm (0.98–1.2 in) in length.

Cultivation of Saffron:
The cultivation of saffron needs an extreme climate; hot and dry weather in summer and cold in winter. The land must be dry, calcareous, aired, flat, and without trees. Attributes that the Meseta of Castilla-La Mancha has, which has made it one of the most important production areas in the world.

The soil must be equilibrated in organic material in order to avoid risks of erosion, and have some depth that allows the water to drain so that the bulb is not damaged. The sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The bulbs are placed in ridges of about 20 cm. depth. The distance between the bulbs should be 10 cm.
The sowing of bulbs is a very hard job because it is done by hand, and forces you to walk in a bent position for hundreds of yards. A mule follows the sower with a roman plow to cover the ridges.

The harvesting of Saffron takes place between the end of October-beginning of November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and should stay the least possible time in the plant because it withers quickly and the stigmas lose color and aroma. This is why they are gathered between dawn and 10 a.m.

Once the Saffron flowers are gathered, stigmas are separated from the rest of the flower. The fact that more than 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of saffron gives us an idea of how hard this work is. The job is extremely labor-intensive and hence the high price.

The stigmas of saffron have a high level of moisture, so it is necessary to dry them for its good preservation. This is the process of roasting, in which the stigmas get its definitive aspect: bright red, rigid, and without wrinkles.

After the process of roasting, the stigmas of saffron would have 1/5 of their original size. This means that for one kg of raw stigmas we will obtain 200 g of saffron ready for consumption. For its perfect preservation, saffron is stored in big wooden trunks lined with a metal plate inside protecting it from heat, cold, and especially moisture.

The sowing takes place in the months of June and July. The bulbs are placed in ridges of about 20 cm. depth. The distance between the bulbs should be 10 cm. The sowing of bulbs is a very hard job because it is done by hand, and forces you to walk in a bent position for hundreds of yards. A mule follows the sower with a roman plow to cover the ridges.

The harvesting takes place between the end of October-beginning of November. The rose of saffron blooms at dawn and should stay the least possible time in the plant because it withers quickly and the stigmas lose color and aroma. This is why they are gathered between dawn and 10 a.m.

Once the flowers are gathered, stigmas are separated from the rest of the flower. The fact that more than 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of saffron gives us an idea of how hard this work is.

Crocus sativus thrives in the Mediterranean maquis (an ecotype superficially resembling the North American chaparral) and similar climates where hot, dry summer breezes sweep semi-arid lands. It can nonetheless survive cold winters, tolerating frosts as low as −10 °C (14 °F) and short periods of snow cover.

Irrigation is required if not grown in moist environments such as Kashmir, where annual rainfall averages 1,000–1,500 mm (39–59 in); saffron-growing regions in Greece (500 mm or 20 in annually) and Spain (400 mm or 16 in) are far drier than where Crocus is cultivated in Iran, for example. What makes this possible is the timing of the local wet seasons; generous spring rains and drier summers are optimal. Rain immediately preceding flowering boosts saffron yields; rainy or cold weather during flowering promotes disease and reduces yields. Persistently damp and hot conditions harm the crops, and rabbits, rats, and birds cause damage by digging out the corms. Nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot pose added threats.
The plants fare poorly in shady conditions; they grow best in full sunlight. Fields that slope towards the sunlight is optimal (i.e., south-sloping in the Northern Hemisphere).

Planting is mostly done in June in the Northern Hemisphere, where corms are lodged 7 to 15 centimeters (2.8–5.9 in) deep. Planting depth and corm spacing, in concert with climate, are critical factors in determining yields. Mother corms planted deeper yield higher-quality saffron, though form fewer flower buds and daughter corms. Italian growers optimize thread yield by planting 15 centimeters (5.9 in) deep and in rows 2–3 cm apart; depths of 8–10 cm optimizes flower and corm production. Greek, Moroccan, and Spanish growers have devised distinct depths and spacings to suit their locales.

C. sativus prefers friable, loose, low-density, well-watered, and well-drained clay-calcareous soils with high organic content. Traditional raised beds promote good drainage. Soil organic content was historically boosted via application of some 20–30 tonnes of manure per hectare. Afterward—and with no further manure application—corms were planted. After a period of dormancy through the summer, the corms send up their narrow leaves and begin to bud in early autumn. Only in mid-autumn do they flower. Harvests are by necessity a speedy affair: after blossoming at dawn, flowers quickly wilt as the day passes. All plants bloom within a window of one or two weeks. Roughly 150 flowers yield 1 gram (0.035 oz) of dry saffron threads; to produce 12 g of dried saffron (72 g freshly harvested), 1 kg of flowers are needed (1 lb for 0.2 oz of dried saffron). One fresh-picked flower yields an average 30mg (0.03g) of fresh saffron or 7mg (0.007g) of dried saffron.