Stigmas of the Flower
Whole dried or powdered
Flavor and color
Saffron (pronounced /ˈsæfrən/ or /ˈsæfrɒn/) is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. Crocus is a genus in the family Iridaceae. Saffron crocus grows to 20–30 cm (8–12 in) and bears up to four flowers, each with three vivid crimson stigmas, which are the distal end of a carpel. Together with the styles, or stalks that connect the stigmas to their host plant, the dried stigmas are used mainly in various cuisines as a seasoning and coloring agent. Saffron, long among the world's most costly spices by weight, is native to Greece or Southwest Asia and was first cultivated in Greece. As a genetically monomorphic clone, it was slowly propagated throughout much of Eurasia and was later brought to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.The saffron crocus, unknown in the wild, probably descends from Crocus cartwrightianus, which originated in Crete; C. thomasii and C. pallasii are other possible precursors.
The saffron crocus is a triploid that is "self-incompatible" and male sterile; it
undergoes aberrant meiosis and is hence incapable of independent sexual
reproduction—all propagation is by vegetative multiplication via manual
"divide-and-set" of a starter clone or by interspecific hybridisation. If C. sativus
is a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, then it may have emerged via plant breeding, which would have selected for elongated stigmas, in late Bronze Age Crete.
Saffron's taste and iodoform- or hay-like fragrance result from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles. Its recorded history is attested in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise compiled under Ashurbanipal, and it has been traded and used for over four millennia. Iran now accounts for approximately 90% of the world production of 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; it bears the 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 ofhydrophilic carotenoids that are either monoglycosyl or diglycosyl polyene esters of crocetin. Crocetin is a conjugated polyene dicarboxylic acidthat 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 and non-fatty foods such as rice dishes.
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, which produces a scent described as saffron, dried hay-like. Chemists find this is the most powerful contributor to saffron's fragrance, despite its presence 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 oxidising agents. It must, therefore, be stored away in air-tight containers to minimize contact with atmospheric oxygen. Saffron is somewhat more resistant to heat.
Saffron is not all of the same quality and strength. Strength is related to several factors including the amount of style picked along with the red stigma. Age of the saffron is also a factor. More style included means the saffron is less strong gram for gram, because the color and flavor are concentrated in the red stigmas. Saffron from Iran, Spain and Kashmir is classified into various grades according to the relative amounts of red stigma and yellow styles it contains. Grades of Iranian saffron are: "sargol" (red stigma tips only, strongest grade), "pushal" or "pushali" (red stigmas plus some yellow style, lower strength), "bunch" saffron (red stigmas plus large amount of yellow style, presented in a tiny bundle like a miniature wheatsheaf) and "konge" (yellow style only, claimed to have aroma but with very little, if any, colouring potential). Grades of Spanish saffron are "coupé" (the strongest grade, like Iranian sargol), "mancha" (like Iranian pushal), and in order of further decreasing strength "rio", "standard" and "sierra" saffron. The word "mancha" in the Spanish classification can have two meanings: a general grade of saffron or a very high quality Spanish-grown saffron from a specific geographical origin. Real Spanish-grown La Mancha saffron has PDO protected status and this is displayed on the product packaging. Spanish growers fought hard for Protected Status because they felt that imports of Iranian saffron re-packaged in Spain and sold as "Spanish Mancha saffron" were undermining the genuine La Mancha brand.