Saffron – or as it's known in Arabic – is an essential spice in Moroccan kitchens, where it adds color and flavor to a number of tagines and dishes. It's important to note that saffron is regarded as the world's most expensive spice by weight, and no wonder – it's labor intensive to harvest and hand-pick the saffron, which is actually the stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower. Taliouine, Morocco is famous for its saffron, and it's from this region that most Moroccan saffron is grown.
Here are some tips for buying, storing and cooking with this fragrant, exotic spice:
Saffron is famously expensive and prices in large supermarkets tends to be especially high. Instead, you'll probably find saffron to be more affordable in halal or Middle Eastern markets, or you can compare online prices for saffron.
When buying saffron, choose the thread-form over ground whenever possible, as ground saffron has a shorter shelf life than the dried threads. Select a high-quality brand, or if purchasing in loose form in Morocco, buy from a reputable spice vendor. Beware of bogus look-alike ingredients which may be mixed with the threads.
Purchase saffron in a small quantity that you'll likely use within a half-year period. Look for the following when buying saffron threads:
- deep-red color with little to no yellow styles (the styles add dead weight to the cost)
- uniform appearance to the threads (wide and flat at one end, tapered at the other)
- pleasant, fragrant aroma (indicates freshness and better flavor; beware of a musty odor)
- dry-to-the-touch, even brittle (moisture will cause the saffron to feel spongy and go bad)
Store saffron in tightly sealed container – a small glass jar works perfectly – in a cool, dark place for up to six months.
(In actuality, saffron will keep for much longer, but it will gradually lose its flavor.) I keep my saffron and other spices in a drawer that's within easy reach of the stove. If the saffron stigmas are compressed together, it helps to loosen and separate them a bit before transferring them to the jar; that way, it will be easy to pull or shake out a few threads at a time.
Cooking with Saffron
Saffron is famous for "a little goes a long way." As such, many recipes call for "a pinch" of saffron threads, or "several" saffron threads. For mildly seasoned dishes, this is usually enough. In some Moroccan dishes, though, saffron is competing against more pungent seasoning, so it's not uncommon to find more generous quantities being used. In that case, loosely pack the threads in a measuring spoon to determine the quantity.
Note: that one teaspoon of saffron threads is equivalent to approximately 1/8 teaspoon ground saffron.
To help release intensified flavor and color from saffron, there are two handy methods: one is to briefly soak the saffron threads in hot water or liquid before adding them to the dish; the other is to briefly dry the threads in a warm skillet, then crush the threads to a powder with the back of a spoon.
I usually do the latter; simply heat the skillet for a minute over medium-high heat, turn off the heat and add the saffron threads. Within a minute or two, the saffron will become brittle and easy to crush.
Prepping Saffron Water for Later Use
Cookbook author and Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert uses a technique worth sharing here: she makes saffron water by soaking 1 teaspoon saffron threads, dried and crushed as described above, in 2 cups of hot water. When the water cools, pour it into ice cube trays and freeze. Transfer the frozen cubes to a freezer bag and use one saffron ice cube for each pinch of saffron threads desired.