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Home :: Saffron


Scientific Name(S): Crocus sativus L. Family: Iridaceae

Common Name(S): Saffron

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.

Botany: True saffron is native to Asia Minor and southern Europe. Its blue-violet, lily-shaped flowers contain the orange stigmas (part of the pistil), which are collected to produce the spice saffron. The plant is a bulbous perennial, growing 6 to 8 inches in height. Mature stigmas are collected by hand during a short blooming season. Over 200,000 dried stigmas, obtained from about 70,000 flowers, yield one pound of true saffron. Saffron commands as much as $30 per ounce in the American market.

True saffron should not be confused with American saffron (safflower, Indian safflower) Carthamus tinctorius L. (family Compositae) that is produced from the tubular florets and is lighter red than true saffron. The two often are used for the same purposes, and less expensive American saffron is sometimes used to adulterate true saffron.

History: Saffron has been widely used for flavoring food and as a dye for cloth where it continues to find use in underdeveloped countries and among back-to-basics artisans. Folkloric uses of saffron have included its use as a sedative, expectorant, aphrodisiac and diaphoretic. Anecdotal reports from the tropical regions of Asia describe the use of a paste composed of sandalwood and saffron as a soothing balm for dry skin.

Uses of Saffron

Saffron increases oxygen diffusion in vivo and may possess antineoplastic activity.

Culinary Uses

Saffron appears in Moorish, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. Its most common function is to colour rice yellow, as in festive Indian pilaus and risotto Milanese, where its delicate flavour make it the most famous of Italian rice dishes. It combines well with fish and seafood, infamous as a key ingredient of Spanish paella as well as bouillabaisse. In England, saffron is probably best known for its use in Cornish saffron buns where it is paired with dried fruit in a yeast cake.

Side Effects of Saffron

Saffron is generally not associated with toxicity when ingested in culinary amounts.

Toxicology: There is no evidence to support saffron's reported emmenagogue (induces or increases menstruation) or abortifacient effects. Large doses of the stigmas have been reported to act as sedatives, and Duke cites fatalities that have occurred from the use of saffron as an abortifacient. The saponin-containing corm is toxic to young animals. Nevertheless, saffron is not generally associated with toxicity when ingested in culinary amounts.

Summary: Saffron is a widely used spice. It is one of the few natural compounds that increases oxygen diffusion in vivo. An association between a reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease and chronic saffron injection has been suggested, but well-designed demographic studies must be conducted to confirm this relationship. Other data suggest that saffron may possess antineoplastic activity.

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