It's no wonder that saffronthe yellow-orange stigmas from a small purple crocus ()is the world's most expensive spice. Each flower provides only three stigmas, which must be carefully hand-picked and then driedan extremely labor-intensive process. It takes more than 14,000 of these tiny stigmas for each ounce of saffron. Thousands of years ago saffron was used not only to flavor food and beverages but to make medicines and to dye cloth and body oils a deep yellow. Today this pungent, aromatic spice is primarily used to flavor and tint food. Fortunately (because it's so pricey), a little saffron goes a long way. It's integral to hundreds of dishes like bouillabaisse, risotto Milanese and paella, and flavors many European baked goods. Saffron is marketed in both powdered form and in threads (the whole stigmas). Powdered saffron loses its flavor more readily and can be easily adulterated with imitations. The threads should be crushed just before using. Store saffron airtight in a cool, dark place for up to six months.
From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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