Whole Saffron spice is a thread/filament called a stigma. Stigmas are the female parts of a plant. Saffron spice stigmas come from a fall crocus (sativus).
It takes one acre of land and about 75,000 flowers (225,000 stigmas) to get one pound of Saffron. Harvesting is done from late October to early November (1-2 weeks). The flowers open at dawn and must be picked by mid-morning before they wither and the stigmas start to lose their color and aroma.
Each plant yields three stigmas which are red in color. They sit atop the plant’s style which is a slim yellowish color stem. Sometimes, pieces of the style may be the source of the non-red materials found amongst your red saffron threads.
Stigmas are hand-picked, therefore harvesting saffron is labor-intensive which factors into the final price making it the world’s most expensive spice by weight. However, a few threads go a long way.
In recipes use about 3 threads of Saffron per person. A ½ gram of Saffron has about 230 threads which would serve roughly 75 people. If you can taste the Saffron in a dish then you may have used too much. Using Saffron in a recipe is more about the aroma than being able to taste it.
Saffron is graded by the International Standard Organization (ISO) 3632 which grades:
Aroma - (safranal)
Grade I = >190 (deep red, aroma is pungent and floral; taste is warm and bitter)
Grade II = >150
Grade III = >110
Grade IV = <110 (less than 110)
Top grade Saffron like Kashmiri or Sargol (Persian) is deep red in color, dry to the touch, strong aroma, and stigmas are between 3/8 and 1/2 inch long.
Spanish Grades: Coupe, Superior, La Mancha, Rio
Coupe (cut) - Grade I, top of the line
Superior - few yellow style tips included
La Mancha - many yellow style tips included
Rio - primarily yellow style tips
Persian Grades: Sargol, Poushal, Bunch, White, Konch
Sargol - Grade I, top of the line, all red stigmas-no style, deep red, dry to the touch
Poushal - red stigmas with some yellow style attached
Bunch - all 3 stigmas still attached to the style and sold in a bunch
White - mostly the pale red/orange parts of the stigmas
Konch - all pale parts of the stigmas with some yellow style
Saffron spice is indigenous to the Middle East, Mediterranean Region (Italy, Spain), North Africa, Kashmir (region between India, Pakistan and China); and Iran (Persian Saffron) which is the world's largest producer by volume.
Ground Saffron spice is sold sometimes in an adulterated manner (mixed with other spices such as Turmeric). Buy from reputable merchants and spice companies. Real Saffron threads (filaments) have a trumpet-like head and a thin tendril-type tail.
Saffron spice is good for foods like: beans, breads, chicken, corn, cucumbers, fish, pasta, rice dishes (Risotto Milanese, paella), seafood, soups like a Bouillabaisse, stews, and turkey.
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