04 October 2009

RISOTTO ALLA MILANESE ...and a little bit about saffron

Saffron threads are the dried stigmas of a crocus flower, "Crocus Sativus Linneaus". Each flower has three stigmas, which are picked carefully by hand. Around 250,000 stigmas are needed to produce a pound of Saffron. THAT’S why it’s so expensive! Luckily for us, a little tiny bit goes a long way. Saffron is the distinctive flavoring and coloring agent in Spanish Paella. It’s also the main flavor/color in the Italian specialty Risotto a la Milanese (recipe below).

Saffron is produced in warm climates. In Europe, most of it comes from Spain or Italy or Greece or Iran. I usually buy it when I’m in Spain or Italy, and it’s (a little bit) cheaper that way.

You can buy saffron in two forms: threads or powder.

If you buy threads, be sure that they’re a dark red/orange color, and that they’re dry and brittle. If there are some lighter orange or yellow or beige threads in there, it’s a lower quality and won’t have the strength of good saffron--you’ll need more for the same effect, and in the end it’s more expensive. When you use the threads, they should be soaked for at least 10-15 minutes in a little warm water to release the flavors (but the longer you soak them the stronger the flavor). The resulting ‘tea’ can be mixed into whatever you’re making, along with the threads. I like to see the little threads in finished dishes. You can also steep the threads in warm milk or broth or whatever liquid you’re using if you don’t want the water to dilute the dish. Or you can steep them in room temperature wine or lemon juice.

If you buy powder, it should have the same dark red/orange color. It’s important to be sure that you buy from a reputable source, because it’s not all THAT hard to adulterate the powder. I use powder when I don’t want to have the little red threads in the finished dish, or when I want stronger color overall. You don’t have to soak the powder, you just add it to the dish near the end of cooking.

Whatever form you use it in, it should always be added near the end of cooking. Here’s one of my favorite ways to use it:

Risotto alla Milanese

1/2 liter / 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion or 2-3 shallots

7 oz / 200 g Arborio or Carnaroli rice

6 ‘portions’ saffron

75 / 1/4 cup ml white wine

100 / 4 oz g fresh parmesan, freshly grated

1. Finely chop the onion or shallots. Put the stock on to heat. It should be simmering.

2. In a wide, shallow pan, heat the olive oil and add the onion. Cook gently, till it starts to brown. Add the rice, and stir till the rice becomes translucent. It should look like this:

3. Add the wine, and stir till it’s gone. Add 1-2 ladles full of hot stock, and stir. Cook on medium low heat till the stock is absorbed by the rice, and then add some more. Stir the rice often to make sure it doesn’t stick. Continue doing this till the rice is done, about 25 minutes (if you run out of stock, you can use hot water).

4. Check the rice starting at about 20 minutes. It’s done when it has a creamy sauce all around it and there is no longer a hard center. You don’t want it soft, but it shouldn’t be crunchy.

5. When you add the last ladles full of stock, add the saffron and stir it in well. When the rice is done, you want it to be a little runny, because then you’ll add the grated parmesan. Stir it well, add salt and pepper and serve.

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.


  • You can use any rice that’s meant for risotto--this is short grained rice. Don’t use rice that’s meant to be steamed, because it won’t have the starchy exterior that it needs to make the sauce.
  • If you don’t have stock, you can use hot water. If you want to make this vegetarian, use vegetable stock.

  • There are two ways to serve risotto in Italy: creamy and not too liquid, or very runny. The runny style is called “alla onda”, and is the way Jamie Oliver says it should always be served. Pooh. I prefer it creamy and less runny.


La Table De Nana said...

Kate we love risotto..Thank for the tut on saffron..:) I just got a sweet little pot of it from my childhood friend..Have a great day..

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

I love this kind of risotto - my favourite!

Cate said...

My mom made this all the time when I was growing up, and I hated the flavor until I was about 12. Then something in my palette clicked, and I realized how great saffron really is. I love the beautiful golden color!

gaga said...

How beautiful! Such simple ingredients, but what a fantastic dish!

Hungry Dog said...

Saffron lends the most beautiful shade or yellow-orange to whatever it touches. Your risotto looks lovely. Thank you for the tips on how to identify good quality saffron!

Kate at Serendipity said...

Monique, lucky you! A pot of saffron is a lovely gift.

Mardi, me too. We make risotto often at our house.

Cate, the color IS splendid, isn't it?

Gaga, sometimes simple is wonderful.

Hungry Dog, I love the way that the red saffron turns yellow/orange. It's a magical transformation.

Mini Baker said...

i miss all the rissoto I ate in Italy !!!
-Mini Baker

Bob said...

Heh, I'll never forget the time when I was a kid and I dumped out my moms saffron because I wanted the little bottle it was in. I just couldn't understand why she was so angry about a couple threads of plant crud!

That risotto looks amazing, I've never had that kind before.

Jill said...

Thanks for posting such an interesting and informative post on saffron and your risotto looks beautiful and delicious! :)

Sweet and Savory said...

This is beautiful. The color the rice takes on adds a whole new dimension to it.

Thanks for the info on saffron. I had no idea. Worse, I never asked.

Sarah Caron said...

Oh my goodness, thanks for the tutorial on saffron! I have some, but have never figured out what to do with it. Thank you!

And MMMMM! I love risotto, and that one looks amazing.

Divina Pe said...

I always love risotto. It's another comfort food. It's alway amazing with saffron. Thank so much for tips.

Velva said...

I absolutely love risotto! I have not thought about saffron until you posted this very informative lesson.
Nice blog post!

I really enjoyed reading your profile. What an interesting story.

Juliana said...

Oh! Your risotto looks so creamy and tasty, indeed the saffron adds an special flavor and color to it! By the way, love your "a little bit about saffron" ;-)

Anonymous said...

I love this dish! Thank you for sharing the recipe. I used Vidalia onions because I thought the sweetness would compliment the saffron well; sometimes shallots are a bit too "garlicky" when another flavor is trying to shine through.

My Carolina Kitchen said...

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The Gypsy Chef said...

How did I miss this post?
Well anyway, I love Saffron and risotto. Believe it or not, I've nver made risotto Milanese. But I will now. Your photos are beautiful.
Thanks for the tips about saffron. Never knew the color indicated quality.

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The Gypsy Chef said...

Hi Kate,
Back again. I came looking for this post. I bought a box of Zafferano and will be mailing you some tomorrow. Anyway, remember that afternoon you made this dish. It had stopped raining and the sun was coming in your kitchen window. It made the risotto's golden color glow. I can always taste this dish when I think of that afternoon.
I am making it for dinner we will toast your culinary talent with our pomegranate and seltzer mocktails!
Hugs and Kisses from the North east,