Saffron and Iran are uniquely linked together. Iran harvests about 96% of the world’s production of saffron. Despite its small size, this spice is quite expensive, and is suitable for many applications.
Persian saffron is a natural spice also called Red Gold. It is globally known for its incomparable quality, fascinating fragrance, pleasant flavor, and superb coloring strength.
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. A C. sativus flower bears three stigmas, each the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles — stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant — the dried stigmas are used in cooking as a seasoning and colouring agent. Saffron, long the world's most expensive spice by weight, is native to Southwest Asia.
Saffron's bitter taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. Saffron also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles.
In the EU saffron is identified as E164 under the E number food additive code system.
The English word saffron stems from the Latin word safranum via the 13th-century Old French term safran. Safranum in turn derives from Persian زعفران (za'ferân). Some argue that it ultimately came from the Arabic word زَعْفَرَان (za'farān), which itself derives from the adjective أَصْفَر (asfar, "yellow"). However, some etymologists argue that زَعْفَرَان (za'farān) is the arabicized form of the Persian word زرپران (zarparān) — "having golden stigmas". Latin safranum is also the source of the Italian zafferano, Portuguese açafrão and Spanish azafrán etc. Crocum in Latin is a Semitic loan word derived from Aramaic kurkema via Arabic kurkum, and Greek krokos.
One part saffron to 150,000 parts water will turn the water a bright yellow and still leave its distinctive flavor.
The domesticated saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is an autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. Saffron in high dosage can also be poisonous. It is a sterile triploid form, possibly of the eastern Mediterranean autumn-flowering Crocus cartwrightianus that originated in Central Asia. The saffron crocus resulted when Crocus cartwrightianus was subjected to extensive artificial selection by growers seeking longer stigmas. Being sterile, the purple flowers of Crocus sativus fail to produce viable seeds; reproduction depends on human assistance: corms, underground bulb-like starch-storing organs, must be dug up, broken apart, and replanted. A corm survives for one season, producing via this division up to ten "cormlets" that grow into new plants. Corms are small brown globules up to 4.5 centimetres (1.8 in) in diameter and are shrouded in a dense mat of parallel fibers.
After aestivating in spring, the plant sends up five to eleven narrow and nearly vertical green leaves, each up to 40 cm (16 in) in length. In autumn, purple buds appear. Only in October, after most other flowering plants have released their seeds, do its brilliantly hued flowers develop; they range from a light pastel shade of lilac to a darker and more striated mauve. Upon flowering, plants average less than 30 cm (12 in) in height. A three-pronged style emerges from each flower. Each prong terminates with a vivid crimson stigma 25–30 mm (0.98–1.2 in) in length.
Crocus sativus thrives in the Mediterranean maquis (an ecotype superficially resembling the North American chaparral) and similar climates where hot, dry summer breezes sweep semi-arid lands. It can nonetheless survive cold winters, tolerating frosts as low as −10 °C (14 °F) and short periods of snow cover.
Irrigation is required if not grown in moist environments such as Kashmir, where annual rainfall averages 1,000–1,500 mm (39–59 in); saffron-growing regions in Greece (500 mm or 20 in annually) and Spain (400 mm or 16 in) are far drier than where Crocus is cultivated in Iran, for example. What makes this possible is the timing of the local wet seasons; generous spring rains and drier summers are optimal. Rain immediately preceding flowering boosts saffron yields; rainy or cold weather during flowering promotes disease and reduces yields. Persistently damp and hot conditions harm the crops, and rabbits, rats, and birds cause damage by digging out the corms. Nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot pose added threats.
The plants fare poorly in shady conditions; they grow best in full sunlight. Fields that slope towards the sunlight are optimal (i.e., south-sloping in the Northern Hemisphere). Planting is mostly done in June in the Northern Hemisphere, where corms are lodged 7 to 15 centimetres (2.8–5.9 in) deep. Planting depth and corm spacing, in concert with climate, are critical factors in determining yields. Mother corms planted deeper yield higher-quality saffron, though form fewer flower buds and daughter corms. Italian growers optimize thread yield by planting 15 centimetres (5.9 in) deep and in rows 2–3 cm apart; depths of 8–10 cm optimizes flower and corm production. Greek, Moroccan, and Spanish growers have devised distinct depths and spacings to suit their locales.
C. sativus prefers friable, loose, low-density, well-watered, and well-drained clay-calcareous soils with high organic content. Traditional raised beds promote good drainage. Soil organic content was historically boosted via application of some 20–30 tonnes of manure per hectare. Afterwards—and with no further manure application—corms were planted. After a period of dormancy through the summer, the corms send up their narrow leaves and begin to bud in early autumn. Only in mid-autumn do they flower. Harvests are by necessity a speedy affair: after blossoming at dawn, flowers quickly wilt as the day passes. All plants bloom within a window of one or two weeks. Roughly 150 flowers yield 1 gram (0.035 oz) of dry saffron threads; to produce 12 g of dried saffron (72 g freshly harvested), 1 kg of flowers are needed (1 lb for 0.2 oz of dried saffron). One fresh-picked flower yields an average 30mg (0.03g) of fresh saffron or 7mg (0.007g) of dried saffron.
Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds. It also has many nonvolatile active components, many of which are carotenoids, including zeaxanthin, lycopene, and various α- and β-carotenes. However, saffron's golden yellow-orange colour is primarily the result of α-crocin. This crocin is trans-crocetin di-(β-D-gentiobiosyl) ester (systematic (IUPAC) name: 8,8-diapo-8,8-carotenoic acid). This means that the crocin underlying saffron's aroma is a digentiobiose ester of the carotenoid crocetin. Crocins themselves are a series of hydrophilic carotenoids that are either monoglycosyl or diglycosyl polyene esters of crocetin. Meanwhile, crocetin is a conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acid that is hydrophobic, and thus oil-soluble. When crocetin is esterified with two water-soluble gentiobioses (which are sugars), a product results that is itself water-soluble. The resultant α-crocin is a carotenoid pigment that may comprise more than 10% of dry saffron's mass. The two esterified gentiobioses make α-crocin ideal for colouring water-based (non-fatty) foods such as rice dishes.
The bitter glucoside picrocrocin is responsible for saffron's flavour. Picrocrocin (chemical formula: C16H26O7; systematic name: 4-(β-D-glucopyranosyloxy)-2,6,6- trimethylcyclohex-1-ene-1-carboxaldehyde) is a union of an aldehyde sub-element known as safranal (systematic name: 2,6,6-trimethylcyclohexa-1,3-diene-1- carboxaldehyde) and a carbohydrate. It has insecticidal and pesticidal properties, and may comprise up to 4% of dry saffron. Significantly, picrocrocin is a truncated version (produced via oxidative cleavage) of the carotenoid zeaxanthin and is the glycoside of the terpene aldehyde safranal. The reddish-coloured zeaxanthin is, incidentally, one of the carotenoids naturally present within the retina of the human eye.
When saffron is dried after its harvest, the heat, combined with enzymatic action, splits picrocrocin to yield D–glucose and a free safranal molecule. Safranal, a volatile oil, gives saffron much of its distinctive aroma. Safranal is less bitter than picrocrocin and may comprise up to 70% of dry saffron's volatile fraction in some samples. A second element underlying saffron's aroma is 2-hydroxy-4,4,6-trimethyl-2,5-cyclohexadien-1-one, the scent of which has been described as "saffron, dried hay like". Chemists found this to be the most powerful contributor to saffron's fragrance despite its being present in a lesser quantity than safranal. Dry saffron is highly sensitive to fluctuating pH levels, and rapidly breaks down chemically in the presence of light and oxidizing agents. It must therefore be stored away in air-tight containers in order to minimise contact with atmospheric oxygen. Saffron is somewhat more resistant to heat.
Saffron has many medicinal uses:
- A 2010 double-blind, placebo-controlled study found saffron helped mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.
Crocetin, an important carotenoid constituent of saffron, has shown significant potential as an anti-tumor agent in animal models and cell culture systems. Saffron inhibits DMBA-induced skin carcinoma in mice when treated early.
Animal testing has shown that the aqueous and ethanolic extracts of saffron and its constituents, crocin and safranal, have antidepressant activities in forced swimming test.
Both saffron stigma and petals are said to be helpful for depression.
Satiereal (Inoreal Ltd, Plerin, France), a novel extract of saffron stigma, may reduce snacking and enhance satiety through its suggested mood-improving effect, and thus contribute to weight loss.
Saffron was found to be effective in relieving symptoms of PMS.
Saffron, crocins and crocetin inhibit breast cancer cell proliferation.
Crocus sativus (most saffron research refers to the stigmas but often this is not made clear in research papers) inhibits histamine H1 receptors in animals, suggesting a potential use in allergic disorders. (Histamine is a biological amine that plays an important role in allergic responses.)
Saffron may have a protective effect on the heart.
A 2011 double blind, human trial found use of 100 mg of saffron daily has temporary immunomodulatory activities.
Saffron & Health:
Research has indicated that Crocin, Safranal and Picrocrocin from saffron may be involved in ant-cancer activity by inhibiting the growth of human cancer cells in vitro.
Benefits for the Heart
In traditional Chinese system, saffron has been used to improve blood circulation and cure bruises. Saffron contains Crocetin, a carotenoid that contributes the most health benefits of saffron. Crocetin has been shown to enhance the oxygen diffusivity through plasma and other liquids, increase alveolar oxygen transport and enhance pulmonary oxygenation. They also lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides in the body and help in the treatment of atherosclerosis and arthritis. In a study of hyperlipemia rats, crocin decreased cholesterol, triglyceride and low density lipoprotein levels, and increased the content of high density lipoprotein.
Saffron Tea is Anti-Depressant Action
Historically, saffron tea has been used to treat depression. ingesting large amounts of the tea and spice has been reported to cause feelings of happiness and joy. According to eMedTV, one study suggested that ingesting saffron tea has as much anti-depressant benefits as taking certain over-the-counter medication.
Antioxidant Action and Eye Care
Safranal, a constituent of saffron, exhibits high antioxidant and free radical scavenging activity. Studies show that saffron improves vision and is an effectual weapon to prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the commonest cause of blindness in the elderly. They are also reported to be good memory enhancers.
Other Reported Benefits of Saffron
In ancient cultures, saffron was used to relieve stomach aches and kidney stones. They regulate the production of stomach acids and promote contractions of the uterine muscles. Saffron is also used to massage the gums in order to reduce inflammation and tenderness. Saffron oil can be used to treat insect bites and stings, heal throat irritation due to cough. It takes more than 4,500 flowers to yield a single ounce of the spice. The expense and efforts may be well worth considering the possible health benefits the spice offers. However, saffron must be used in moderation, as high doses are known to be toxic.
Saffron is expensive but affordable
Saffron is one of the few things that truly is worth its weight in gold. This product of the crocus flower adds not only pungent and aromatic flavor to foods, but also a beautiful golden color. Luckily, the tiniest amount goes a long way, so in spite of it being the world's most expensive spice, it is still within the budget of the home cook.
Each purple crocus flower produces three stigmas, which are hand-picked from the blossom, dried, and permitted to ferment slightly to produce saffron.
It is estimated that it takes some 14,000 stigmas to produce only one ounce of saffron threads. The labor-intensive process makes the cost of these bright red threads soar upwards of $50 per quarter-ounce. Luckily, a little bit goes a long way, and you can buy enough for a number of meals for under $10.
One part saffron to 150,000 parts water will turn the water a bright yellow and still leave its distinctive flavor.
affron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to illustrate beasts in 50,000 year-old cave art found in today's Iraq (north-west of Persian Empire). Later, the Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. Sumerians did not cultivate saffron. They gathered their stores from wild flowers, believing that divine intervention alone enables saffron's medicinal properties. Such evidence provides evidence that saffron was an article of long-distance trade before Crete's Minoan palace culture reached a peak in the 2nd millennium BC.
In Persian Achaemenid Empire saffron (Crocus sativus 'Hausknechtii') was cultivated at Derbena and Isfahan in the 10th century BC. There, Persian saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds. Saffron was used by ancient Persian worshipers as a ritual offering to their deities, and as a brilliant yellow dye, perfume, and a medicine. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Indeed, Persian saffron threads, used to spice foods and teas, were widely suspected by foreigners of being a drugging agent and an aphrodisiac. These fears grew to forewarn travellers to abstain from eating saffron-laced Persian cuisine.
In addition, Persian saffron was dissolved in water with sandalwood to use as a body wash after heavy work and perspiration under the hot Persian sun. Later, Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. They mixed saffron into teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander personally used saffron sprinkled in warm bath water. He believed it would heal his many wounds, and his faith in saffron grew with each treatment. He even recommended saffron baths for the ordinary men under him. The Greek soldiers, taken with saffron's perceived curative properties, continued the practice after they returned to Macedonia. Saffron cultivation also reached what is now Turkey, with harvesting concentrated around the northern town of Safranbolu; the area still known for its annual saffron harvest festivals.