Updated: May 9
Saffron (kesar) is obtained from the stigmas of the gorgeous, purple flower of a plant called 'Saffron plant' or 'Crocus sativus'. The saffron plant flowers for about a month every year (in October). The flowers have three stigmas, which ultimately become the majestic spice called ‘saffron’. The stigmas of about 200 flowers are needed to produce a gram of high-quality saffron.
Saffron has a strong, exotic aroma and a slightly bitter taste. It is sweet in aroma but a bit bitter in taste.
Uses of saffron:
Cooking: Saffron is used to colour and flavour many Middle Eastern Indian and Mediterranean dishes, particularly rice, sweets, fish, and meat.
Health tonic: Saffron is traditionally used to give strength and heat to body. It is also a famous anti-depression herb, able to create a happy and jovial mood.
Beauty: Saffron is also used in beauty products as it improves the softness and glow of the skin.
Pregnancy: Another use of saffron is in pregnancy. It helps to relieve stress, aches and pains, mood swings and pregnancy discomforts. But large quantities must be avoided. Use only two to three strands at most in any preparation, and start consuming saffron after fifth month of pregnancy, as the pregnancy is stable at this time, and risks of premature contractions is reduced.
Medicine: Saffron is used in Ayurveda and Unani Medicine to treat many diseases including diabetes, skin and heart diseases, memory impairment, and low vitality. You can read more here.
How to use saffron:
High-grade saffron is very strong and a few stamens of that is enough. For example, 2-3 stamens are enough in a glass of warm milk, and 5-6 strands are sufficient for making a pot of biryani.
If you want to use saffron in food (e.g. in biryani), the best way is to crush a pinch of saffron, and then soak the powder in a cup of warm/hot water for a few minutes. After that, the saffron water can be added to the food.
How to store saffron:
Store saffron in small airtight glass or metal containers, in a dry and cool place, away from light. If you store saffron in this way, it will retain its aroma and coloring power for many months.
You can store saffron in the refrigerator provided you can manage to keep the container airtight and prevent humidity affect it.
Categories of Saffron
Based upon how the saffron stigmas are cut, several categories of saffron exist in the market.
In Iran and Afghanistan, saffron is categorized in this way:
The highest category is called Negin (meaning 'jewel' in Persian). Negin stigmas are all-red or sometimes with a small bit of the yellow part. High-quality negin saffron is sometimes called 'supernegin' and is considered the best saffron.
The second category is Sargol (meaning 'top of the flower' in Persian). Sargol stigmas are totally red and a bit shorter than Negin stigmas.
The other category is Poushal. These are longer stigmas with a yellow part in the end.
If the whole stigma is kept as it is, we will have a long stigma in yellow and red color. When many such stigmas are tied together, it is called 'dasteh' in Persian and 'bunch' in English.
In Kashmir, saffron is categorized like this:
The highest category is called 'Mogra'. This is the same as the Sargol saffron.
The second category is 'Laccha'. This is similar to Poushali saffron (but normally with a longer yellow portion).
And the third one is 'Gucchi'. This is the same as the 'bunch' saffron.
In Spain, the Sargol saffron is called 'Coupe'.
What is high quality saffron?
High quality saffron can be obtained only by good farming practices, good harvesting and processing methods, and most importantly good storage methods.
In general, the characteristics of a high quality saffron lot is:
It is pure, without additives, color, or preservatives.
It has strong aroma, coloring capacity, and taste.
It has a small percentage of broken or powdered stamens.
Once put in water, such saffron will not release color quickly. It will color the water very slowly, and after about half an hour starts losing its own color.
If any of the saffron categories (Poushal, Negin, etc.) have such qualities, they are of high quality and are worth buying. However, in comparison, high quality negin or sargol (mogra) is higher and more expensive than high quality poushal (laccha).
What is American saffron?
'American saffron' is the petals of a flower called 'safflower'. The flower has yellow, oramge, and red varieties. The petals of this flower give a color similar to the color given by saffron, without the taste or aroma of saffron. American saffron is very inexpensive and many restaurants use them to give saffron color to their dishes.
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