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Saffron (Crocus sativus L.)

Plant family

Iridaceae (iris family)

Botanical synonyms



Saffron originates from West Asia most likely Persia and Mediterranean areas. The crocus was cultivated in ancient Europe. The Mongols took saffron from Persia to India.

Today, saffron is cultivated from the Western Mediterranean (Spain) to India (Kashmir). Spain and Iran are the largest producers, accounting together for more than 80% of the world's production, which is approximately 300 tons per year. In Europe, saffron production is almost limited to the Mediterranean; Spanish (La Mancha) saffron is generally considered the best. In much smaller scale, saffron is also cultivated in Italy and Greece (Crete).

Used plant part

Stigma, also called style (central part of a flower, female sexual organ).

Approximately 150000 flowers are needed for one kilogram of dried saffron. Less expensive qualities include also the yellow stamina (male sexual organ), which do not have any taste of their own.

Sensoric quality

Very intensively fragrant, slightly bitter in taste. By soaking saffron in warm water, one gets a bright yellow-orange solution.

It adds not only pungent and aromatic flavour to foods, but also a beautiful golden yellow colour.

Main constituents

The intensive colour of saffron is caused by pigments like crocin, crocetin, carotene (oil soluble a- and ß-carotenes), lycopene, zeaxanthin and picrocrocin. Saffron's golden yellow-colour orange colour is primarily the result of a-crocin.

Whilst the colour is mainly due to the degraded carotenoids (crocin and crocetin), the flavour comes from the carotenoid oxidation products (safranal and the bitter glucoside picrocrocin).

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”. This is the most powerful contributor to saffron's fragrance despite it being present in a lesser quantity than safranal.

In fresh saffron the compounds like picrocrocin are stable but as a result of heat and the passage of time it decomposes releasing safranal.

These flavour and aroma components of dry saffron are highly sensitive to fluctuating pH levels, and rapidly break down chemically in the presence of light and oxidizing agents. Saffron must therefore be stored away in air-tight containers.

Saffron stigmata, also called saffron threads (Source)


In history, Roman emperors used the saffron to perfume baths and the rich people's seats in theatre were sprinkled with saffron wine.

In the present time, saffron exists on the market in powdered form or as threads. Like most all spices and herbs, “whole” is more powerful than “ground”. Whole saffron is required to be prepared before use, sometimes soaked, sometimes toasted and ground. Ground saffron can also be used in small amounts but one has to be careful while purchasing due to adulteration, most often with turmeric. Saffron can be toxic when used in large amounts.

Saffron is used for several Mediterranean dishes, often in connection with fish and seafood. Famous examples are the Italian risotto alla Milanese (moist short-grain rice with bone marrow), the Provençal fish soup bouillabaisse and the Spanish national dish, paella Valenciana (spicy dry short-grain rice with seafood or chicken). Furthermore, saffron appears in a few European cake recipes, English saffron cakes, Scandinavian sweet breads and Chartreuse liqueur, where it is used both for flavour and for colour.

In the food industry it is used as a colourant in sausages, margarine, butter, cheese, ice-cream, desserts, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Saffron is more important in Central Asia and Northern India, where it is used extensively for rice dishes. Northern Indian biriyanis are fragrant and aromatic rice dishes, usually with chicken or mutton, that are intensively flavoured by saffron in conjunction with Indian bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, green cardamom, star anise and nutmeg or mace. They are frequently decorated with nut or almond pieces and dried raisins or pomegranate seeds.

In Indi, Tibet and China, saffron is also used to produce the yellow-red colour of robes for Hindu and Buddhist monks.

Source :

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