How to Use Saffron, the King of Spices

How to Use Saffron, the King of Spices

Do you know how to use saffron to draw out the maximum flavour, colour and aroma from a tiny amount? My social media friends often point out that saffron is too expensive when I recommend using it in a recipe. My answer is “It isn’t, If you know how to use saffron.” One such comment from a twitter friend today inspired me to write this post I should have written long ago.

Saffron is the most expensive spice on this planet and more expensive than gold by weight. So very true. But have you asked yourself how Persian cooks manage to use it in so many recipes, both sweet and savoury? Are we really that rich to put something more expensive than gold in our food almost everyday? The answer is no. We just know how to use a tiny amount of saffron for maximum impact.

Persian ice cream is often flavoured with saffron. I’ve used a few soaked whole threads as decoration.


The list of the dishes we make with saffron is endless. Take our beloved saffron rice pudding (sholeh zard) for instance, or our savoury rice cake (tahchin). The deep yellow colour, the sweet hay-like aroma and the flavour of saffron gives these dishes their unique character. Without saffron they would never be what they are. But in many other dishes like most of our stews (curry-like dishes) the use of saffron is optional, just to add more flavour, aroma.

Persian saffron rice pudding (sholeh zard). This decadent saffron and cardamom flavoured sweet pudding is decorated with cinnamon, sliced almonds and pistachios. Sholeh zard is often made in huge quantities for religious ceremonies during which it is distributed to the poor as alms.

Is saffron cheap in Iran where more than 90 per cent of the world crop is grown? No, not really. But we get the best for our money. Iranian saffron is really potent. Our saffron comes in various grades. The best are negin and then sargol respectively (from the tip of the stigmas). These are the strongest. What remains after separating the tip of the stigmas (the barely yellow end side of the threads) is the cheapest. It doesn’t have much colour but still has some aroma.

A small amount of saffron can easily make everyday rice and chicken an indulgent, festive meal. The use of saffron in zereshk polo ba morgh (barberry rice with chicken) is optional.

So let me tell you a bit about the plant that produces this most expensive spice before we get to how to prepare and use saffron. Saffron comes from crocus sativus. The plant is related to spring and autumn-flowering garden crocus and blooms in autumn. In the picture below you can see the three dark orange stigmas. These stigmas are our “edible gold”.

Bee enjoying the nectar from a saffron flower.

The stigmas have to be picked by hand. This is a very labour-intensive job so it’s no wonder saffron is so expensive. Moreover, the plant likes warm and sunny climates so it doesn’t grow well in many places. But a gram of good saffron will see you through quite a few dishes. Yes, one gram only! It’s probably cheaper than many commercially packed spice mixes given its potency.

Chargrilled skewered chicken flavoured with saffron (joojeh kabab zaferani) can be found on the menu of almost every restaurant in Iran. It’s served with rice or bread with a side of  chargrilled whole tomatoes and long peppers.

There are different methods for preparing saffron. Persian cooks always grind saffron threads to a fine powder. This way even a small pinch will release enough colour and aroma to make an everyday dish look very indulgent.

So if you like to use saffron more often invest in a small stone, ceramic or metal mortar and pestle with a rather rough surface on the inside. It’s best never to use the mortar and pestle for grinding other spices or to wash it.

Persian cooks grind saffron threads in a small mortar with a pestle to a fine powder. The grade of saffron in the mortar is sargol  (the stigma tips only).

In humid weather it may be a little difficult to grind saffron threads. A pinch of coarse sugar is often added to saffron threads to make grinding easier. Damp threads can also be dried in a microwave oven for 20-30 seconds on a piece of kitchen paper before grinding. Keeping your stash of saffron in a tightly covered small jar in a cool, dark place helps keep it dry.

The next step in preparation of saffron is “brewing” it to make saffron liquid. There are two methods for brewing saffron. Both work really well. Any leftover saffron liquid will keep in a tightly covered jar in the fridge for more than a week. Ground saffron will also keep well in a cool, dry place for at least a month. Saffron liquid is deep red but will turn yellow when mixed with food.

  • Brewing in boiling water: Put 1/4 teaspoon of saffron powder in a tiny jar. Add one tablespoon freshly boiled water that you have allowed to cool for a few seconds. Cover the jar with the lid and put it in a warm place. I often let my saffron brew on the lid of a simmering pot or kettle and use the liquid (and the grinds) after ten or fifteen minutes. This method produces a deeper colour.
  • Brewing with ice: Put 1/4 teaspoon saffron in a small bowl or cup. Add an ice cube (crushed ice is best). Leave to infuse for about ten minutes or until the ice has completely melted. The gradual melting of the ice will bring out the colour and aroma of saffron very nicely. Use the liquid as required.

Now that you know how to use saffron you might want to try some saffron recipes. How about starting with one the following?

One word of caution: Saffron is not just a spice. It has been proven to elevate mood and has been used since ancient times, both in the East and the West, as medicine. Like any other medicine excessive use of saffron can be harmful. The small amounts used to flavour food are generally safe for everybody. Large amounts (like in strong saffron brews and sherbets) can be harmful to pregnant women.

Add Comment