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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 23, 2001

The Vegetarian
Frugal use of saffron adds new flavors to veggie dishes

By Angela Stephens
Gannett News Service

In the ancient times of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, spices were important commodities. Overland trade routes from Europe to countries such as India and China were well worn. Then explorers began searching for a quicker way to the spice countries via the sea. A great idea until a whole new continent got in the way.

Nonetheless, the lure of these valuable spices was strong. And spices were worth their weight in gold. Fortunately, we don't have to trek across deserts or set sail in a ship to get good spices. Most markets, specialty markets and cooking stores as well as a wealth of Internet foodie sites make getting everything from kosher salt to saffron a piece of cake.

Good thing, too. While for generations, salt and pepper were the main – and often exclusive – spices used in a lot of kitchens, people have started to refamiliarize themselves with more unusual herbs and spices.

Vegetables and grains are quite tasty on their own, but most vegetarian dishes move from ordinary to wonderful with the addition of interesting spices.

Saffron is one of those mysterious spices that work magic. Billed as the world's "most expensive spice," saffron is often quite misunderstood and underused because of it.

That an ounce of saffron goes for about $36 makes it seem like an extravagance – especially if you are economical in how you spend money, waiting for sales and using coupons.

But, like all good things, there is more to the story.

Saffron, the brilliant red threads – the three red stigmas of each flower – are harvested from the crocus (crocus sativus) plant. It takes about 75,000 crocus flowers to make just one pound of saffron threads. Major producers and suppliers of saffron are Iran, Greece, Spain and India.

The most important thing you need to know about buying saffron is that you really do need to know what you are buying. Because most people know that saffron is pricey, there isn't always sticker shock at paying $15 or more for a mere pinch at the market.

Ellen Szita is author of " Wild About Saffron: A Contemporary Guide to An Ancient Spice" and creator of an informative Web site dedicated to it (www.saffroninfo.com). She says if you aren't buying pure saffron, you actually are spending more money because you will need to use much more of the spice to get the same unique and earthy flavor and aroma your cooking.

Saffron is graded in categories from 1 (purest) to 4 (adulterated or not pure). Because pure saffron commands $36 an ounce and most people can't tell the difference between what is pure and what isn't, adulterated saffron often is sold for an inflated price.

Saffron is graded according to its coloring strength, which is determined by independent laboratory testing done by the International Organization for Standardization in Switzerland. This body sets quality and labeling standards for various spices and condiments worldwide. Purchasing saffron with a coloring strength of at least 190 (220 would be appropriate), is what makes buying saffron affordable. In other words, a little goes a long way. Szita claims an ounce of saffron can last a year, even if used as frequently as once a week. So at $36, it would cost about 70 cents to use some each week, making it affordable in the long run.

She suggests not buying less than a gram at a time, and purchasing through a reputable dealer, rather than buying the little jars in the market. You'll be paying an inflated price at the market because they don't sell enough volume.

To test that theory, I checked my market. Two brands were sold and neither gave the coloring strength on the package, so I didn't know exactly what I would be buying. One brand was $11 for .01 ounce and the other $15 for .06 ounce. At $11, I'd be paying $1,100 for an ounce at the market!

Once you have a handle on pricing and quality, the question of saffron threads vs. powder arises. You might be told not to buy saffron in powder form, because you don't know if it's pure. Szita says, again ask the coloring strength when buying powdered. If it's higher than 190, you're getting good saffron, no two ways about it. It wouldn't have a high coloring strength if there were a lot of extraneous plant material mixed in.

Threads should be steeped in alcohol or an acidic or hot liquid no less than 20 minutes before using in a recipe. The threads can be steeped for more than 24 hours and will continue to extract color, flavor and aroma. Powdered saffron is easier to use than the threads.

Powdered saffron can be added directly to a recipe without steeping. Saffron is a wonderful spice for all sorts of vegetarian dishes.

It's unique flavor, color and aroma works in soups, desserts, breads, potato, pasta, risotto and rice dishes. It marries well when used along with garlic and thyme, too. For a recipe that serves four to six people, you might start by using one-eighth teaspoon of powdered saffron and 1 teaspoon of threads.

Another tip: When cooking with saffron it's best to avoid using wooden spoons or other porous cooking utensils. They'll absorb not only coloring from saffron, but some of the flavor, too. Who wants to waste it on a wooden spoon?

And, what about impostors? Myths about saffron include suggesting the use of spices such as turmeric, curry powder, annatto or safflower. These are made from completely different plants and will impart a different flavor and aroma to your dish, although they may provide a similar yellowish coloring.

Some believe that safflower is actually a less expensive grade of saffron. It is not. Saffron is from the Crocus sativus plant, safflower is from Carthamus tinctorius – again different plants. The confusion is caused by nicknames such as American Saffron, given to safflower. Quality saffron can be purchased from specialty spice vendors, including some on the Internet. I found three online: Vanilla, Saffron Importers at www.saffron.com (they sell the Golden Gate Brand recommended by Ellen Szita on her Web site); Indian saffron from www.babysaffron.com and Greek saffron at www.greekproducts.com. There are many other sellers out there, just remember to determine what the quality is by asking the key question: What is the coloring strength of the saffron you sell?

Angela Stephens is a former newspaper food editor and writes this column nationally for Gannett News Service. Reach her at vegetarian@azcentral.com.