Saffron: how to pair it in your recipes


It’s really true that life is full of learning opportunities. While browsing the book of Chartier on food pairing, I ran into the chapter about saffron. I admit I thought I knew everything about saffron and the way to pair it. But as a naive kid, here I am, learning about a world of possible combinations I never thought about.

What is saffron

Well, I think mostly everyone knows what is saffron, but just to refresh our memories…it is the pistil of the flower Crocus Sativus, after having been picked up and dried. Iran is first for the production of saffron. However, the spice is also grown in Italy and other Mediterranean areas. Saffron is expensive…very expensive…it is much more pricey than gold (no kidding)…it is a prestigious spice to be used in special recipes.

Prefer saffron in pistils over the pulverized version.

The aromatic bouquet and the color

As in the case of maple syrup, there are hundreds of molecules contributing to the typical aroma of saffron. The dominating compound is safranal, which represents about 70% of saffron’ aromatic compounds and confers it the typical taste.

The yellow color is given by the presence of carotenoids. Those compounds are also found in pumpkins and carrots and are responsible of the characteristic orange color.

How to employ it in your recipes

Something I learnt is that, prior to use, saffron must be soaked into a greasy liquid (meat stock, milk, cream, vegetable oil) for no more than 20 min. This process helps the extraction of pigments and aromatic molecules that are not water soluble, but have affinity for fats.

I must do mea culpa and confess that I have always added saffron’s pistils when my risotto was already cooked, without any former infusion (what a shame!).

How to pair it

If you thought, like me, that saffron just goes in the risotto alla milanese, well…time to update your cooking diary! :)

My years as a globetrotter have already opened my eyes on the various pairings of saffron in the kitchen. I pleasantly discovered it in the Swedish Lussenkatter, to find it again in several Indian and Middle East treats.

But that’s just the beginning. Apparently, saffron is a good mate of apples (in particular, golden type), figs, leeks and more!

And now that I have the right inspiration, why not trying some different recipe with saffron?


F. Chartier, Taste buds and molecules: the art and science of food and wine, Ed. McClelland and Stewart, 2009