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.