Saffron: cultivation, properties, use of saffron in the kitchen

Saffron: cultivation, properties, use of saffron in the kitchen


Saffron is a delicious and tasty aromatic plant more precious than gold. It belongs to the Iridaceae family and is a plant native to the eastern Mediterranean countries.






: Angiosperms


: Monocotyledons












Crocus sativus


The saffron plant, whose scientific name is Crocus sativus L., belongs to the family of Iridaceae, native to western Asia, it is found spontaneously in Mediterranean countries.

It is a herbaceous plant provided with a fairly large bulb with a spherical shape, 3-5 cm of diameter, and about 2 cm of height from which the long, linear and petiole-free leaves of a very intense green color emerge, collected in tufts from some leaf sheaths. The leaf sheaths allow the whole aerial part of the plant to emerge from the ground almost completely developed and therefore once emerged, the leaves spread out.

The saffron flowers they are violet in color, 3-5 in number per plant, with a fragile, very long yellowish stylus, ending with a stigma divided into three parts at the top, orange in color from which the precious spice is obtained.

It blooms towards the end of October, a period in which the flower stigmas are harvested strictly by hand.

It is not known with certainty from what the plant is derived, if from some spontaneous plant or from hybridization between different species as it is sterile so its propagation takes place only vegetatively, through the bulbs.

The saffron plant is grown all over the world and in Italy the crops of Sardinia, Abruzzo, Umbria and Tuscany are flourishing. There are numerous varieties that differ from each other in the color of the flowers and the length of the stigmas and on the market they are distinguished by the name of origin: saffron from L'Aquila, saffron from Spain, etc.


The sprouting it occurs in autumn (September) and in October there is flowering which lasts until mid-November. The anthesis, ie the appearance of the stigmas, occurs a few hours after flowering (the period in which the harvest takes place).

Immediately after at the base of the bulb appears a crown of roots while at the base of the shoots new small bulbs appear which swell throughout the winter and the mother bulb is reabsorbed and the leaves lengthen. The bulbs continue to develop until early summer when the plant loses both its leaves and roots. This is the period in which the new bulbs can be collected for transplanting.

In autumn, the cycle resumes from the bulbs that formed during the winter.

Generally a harsh saffron crop 2-3 years after which it is necessary to redo the plant as the bulbs form too much on the surface.

All these operations are done by hand.


The typical areas in Italy where saffron is grown are very different from each other. In fact it is not a particularly demanding plant thanks to the fact that the summer heat and drought are overcome as the plant is in vegetative stasis. The only thing that might bother her are sudden frosts and excessive autumn rains that could hinder flowering.

She is not particularly demanding in terms of soils: a light, calcareous and deep soil is ideal for her.

The plant is carried out in the summer using bulbs taken from 2-3 year old crops, selected from medium-sized and healthy ones. The bulbs are planted in rows 30cm apart and 10-15cm deep.


Saffron is very rich in carotenoids, alpha crocin which is responsible for the yellow color, glucose, an irritating volatile essential oil.

Its properties are: stimulating, tonic, sedative, emmenagogical and hypnotic.


Saffron is used the stigmas of the flowers to obtain the precious spice.

The harvest takes place very early in the morning for a period of about 15 days.

The flowers are collected still closed as soon as they are released from the white spatula. Then the stigmas are immediately recovered and dried on cloth rags with charcoal embers.

To have a kilo of dry saffron, about 120,000 - 140,000 flowers are required from which the stigmas are taken strictly by hand, which more or less correspond to 10Kg / ha of dry product. Hence the high price of this spice, more expensive than gold!

Practically saffron today is used only as a spice.


The use of saffron in the kitchen is well known.


Saffron is also known as crocus or damselfish.

In ancient times this plant was known more for its medicinal properties than in fact it is mentioned in the culinary Song of Songs, in the Egyptian papyri and in theIliadIn the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was considered almost a panacea.

We report from the book Modern Herbal by Margaret Grieve, vol. 1 and 2, Dover Publications New edition, 1971: «Saffron is the Karcom for Jews (Song of Solomon, 4.14). The plant was also known to the Greeks and Romans ... Saffron, or wild crocus from Persia, is the variety Hausknechtii, which is located in the Delechani or Sangur mountains between Kermanshah and Hamadan in western Persia and at Karput in Kurdistan; this is the easternmost place where you can find any form of Crocus sativus in the wild ...
The Arabs who introduced the cultivation of Crocus in Spain to trade it they left us the name of Zaffer (or saffron) while the Greeks and Romans called it respectively Krokos is Karkom. For the peoples of East Asia, its yellow color was perfect beauty and its perfume a ragweed. "The saffron yellow shoes were part of the dress of the Persian kings" says prof. Hehn The myths and poetry of the Greek people show great admiration for its color and scent. Homer sings "the crocus-colored aurora"; gods and goddesses, heroes, nymphs and vestals, wore saffron-colored clothing, the most popular being the saffron of Lydia, Cilicia and Cyrene. The essence was considered in the same way as the tincture; the saffron water was sprinkled on the steps of the theaters, its leaves scattered on the floors of the banquet halls and the pillows filled with saffron ».


See: «Saffron - The language of flowers and plants».

Saffron: properties and uses in the kitchen. And why is it so expensive?

The saffron it is one of the most famous and used spices in cooking, as well as being the most expensive of all. At the moment his price it varies between 15 and 60 euros per gram. It is mainly produced in Iran, which supplies 90% of saffron in the world, but now we also find saffron produced in Italy sold at lower prices in supermarkets. It is an immediately recognizable spice, for its yellow-orange color, for its scent and clearly for its delicious aroma and flavor. Let's find out everything there is to know about saffron. The property, use in the kitchen, the price and curiosities.

Saffron, the special ingredient in dozens of dishes

  • Saffron is very often used in Mediterranean, Spanish, Turkish, Indian or Asian cuisine.
  • In Spain it is an essential ingredient in Paella which gives it a specific color.
  • In France it is a condiment used in fish dishes. Mixed with garlic, thyme and a little vinegar it can become a marinade in which to prepare fish for a sensational taste.
  • In the countries of the Middle East there is a pleasant presence alongside cardamom in coffee. Regardless of the preparation you choose, remember to use saffron to the fullest to take advantage of its unique flavor.

In Italy it is used in the preparation of rice in the recipes of the "saffron risotto " and the "saffron chicken". The same is true in India, where cooks also include it in recipes for sweets or bread.

Saffron tea

Saffron tea
Image by dungthuyvunguyen from Pixabay

For a more intense taste, try saffron tea, which it releases its aromas when it comes into contact with hot water. After about 20 minutes, the pistils release color and smell for up to the next 24 hours.

Chicken with Sea Saffron

Chicken with Sea Saffron Sauce

Preparation times


  • 1 kg of chicken pieces or thighs
  • 1 white onion
  • 2 green or red bell peppers
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon of goji juice
  • saffron as the tip of the needle
  • oil
  • salt

Methods of Preparation

Chicken and peppers

The saffron it is one of the most expensive ingredients in the world, but it can change the taste of any food, from good to better! You should try the recipe for saffron chicken as soon as possible!

  1. Put the sliced ​​chicken or thighs in a deep pan with a little extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and a sprinkle of Goji juice.
  2. Fry the chicken pieces. When they are golden brown, add the chopped onions, garlic and the peppers into strips. Stir and leave on high heat for 4-5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put the saffron in a glass of water which you then heat in the microwave. Stir to get a colored liquid that is poured over the chicken. Leave for 2-3 minutes, then add 200 ml of water and let it boil for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. When the sauce has become thick and the ingredients are boiled, the food is ready.

Properties of Saffron and curiosities

The origin of saffron is still uncertain and it is assumed that the area of ​​a first diffusion is that which extends from the Middle East to the Hellenic peninsula. Subsequently, cultivation developed throughout the Mediterranean area and in northern India. In the east it spread in particular in Persia and in the region of Kashmir while the spread towards the west was the work of the Phoenicians who also brought it to Italy. Symbol and wish of conjugal happiness, still today in the East it is used to give saffron as a wish for a long life. Its name comes from the Persian "sahafaran", bright yellow, passed to the Arabic za'faran which means sunshine. And like the sun it evokes warmth, energy, well-being.

Therapeutic and aphrodisiac properties have always been attributed to saffron, for the most part motivated by the knowledge of the fluidifying power of the spice whose moderate intake improves the circulation of blood and liquids.

Used over the centuries to obtain the yellow color in the preparation of colors for frescoes, for paintings of illuminated manuscripts or to dye clothes and fabrics (it was used for the royal garments of the ancient Egyptians), it was also used in cosmetics to give hair a splendid coppery blond color or as a base for the preparation of anti-inflammatory and healing ointments.

During the Middle Ages there was an intense use of this spice which was known above all for its healing properties, but only a few could afford to use it due to the high cost. The Spoleto scholar, Pierfrancesco Giustolo, who lived at the court of the Borgia, in "De Croce cultu", a poem written in Latin hexameters and published in Rome in 1510, tells us that the fatty lands or lands full of clay, but those of the stony valleys and steep hills, and in Umbria it indicates in the area of ​​Cascia and Norcia and in the hills that go from Spoleto to the sources of the Topino the territories suited to cultivation.

In Umbria, the cultivation and marketing of saffron must have constituted significant economic activities if since the thirteenth century the Perugia Statute prohibits the sowing of the plant to foreigners throughout the Perugia countryside.

In the fourteenth century, saffron was one of the products that had the highest exit customs tax and in many cases replaced the currency.

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, a large part of Cascia's economic activity was also based on the saffron trade, as reported in some documents from the mid-sixteenth century where there is talk of exchanges of spice with precious gems. One of the testimonies on the value and the great diffusion of the crop in Umbria is represented by the numerous documents concerning the judicial documents of the sixteenth century that indicate numerous reports of saffron theft in the fields and houses of the Poreta area (Spoleto countryside).

Saffron is a spice with a unique and intoxicating aroma, and although history tells us of its many uses, from fabric dyes to pharmacopoeia, only in the kitchen we are offered the opportunity to savor its intense taste and perceive its aroma. enveloping as a determining element of an amalgamated combination of flavors. The taste of saffron blends happily with different foods, as evidenced by the many recipes that use the spice as a component of dishes based on fish, meats, cereals, vegetables, legumes and for pastry.

Considered the most precious spice all over the world, in Umbria saffron is cultivated exclusively in some areas of which news and testimonies have been handed down until the beginning of the sixteenth century. Subsequently the crop disappeared until, in June 1999, a group of farmers, fascinated by the history of this spice and helped by technicians and researchers, began to plant the first bulbs.

Cascia saffron has been recognized in the list of traditional Umbrian agri-food products.

Its production cycle is entirely carried out in compliance with a strict disciplinary that guarantees its total quality and takes place in the following phases: planting of the bulbs, harvesting of flowers, skimming, roasting and packaging.

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Saffron: cultivation, properties, use of saffron in the kitchen

There are countless beneficial properties of saffron. Leaving aside the therapeutic use, for which there are still no appropriate scientific studies, it can be said that, at the normal doses used in the kitchen, saffron has a beneficial action on the whole organism. In particular it aids in digestion, proves to be a powerful antioxidant and is said to be a good aphrodisiac.

The coloring properties of saffron were used in ancient times especially for fine fabrics. With the advent of chemistry, its use as a dye has been reduced, if not abandoned. In Sardinia the characteristic yellow color of many Sardinian costumes is still obtained today with saffron.

In the kitchen, saffron has been used, since ancient times, to spice foods. Its properties, such as gastronomic seasoning, are the happy result of the presence of three active ingredients. These, wisely combined by nature inside the drug, make saffron capable of enhancing any dish and satisfying the most demanding palates. They are:

  • crocin, which has coloring power
  • picrocrocin, which has a bittering power
  • safranal, which has aromatizing power.
In many recipes, saffron is an essential and indispensable ingredient, but it manages to give an extra touch everywhere, even in the simplest dishes.

How to use saffron
Depending on the dish cooked and the preferences of the cook, saffron in stigmas can be:
    use as it is, simply adding it to sauces and soups

  • pulverize just before use, so that it does not lose fragrance, and add it to the dishes directly in powder or, after dissolving the powder in a little hot water or broth, use the water or broth to cook the dishes to flavor.
  • Sa tiriadura that is, how to pulverize saffron into stigmas
    The pulverization of saffron (an operation called in Sardinian sa tiriadura) can be done in several ways. First you must always toast the stigmas, subjecting them for a very short time to a source of heat and then, when they are very dry and crumbly, pulverize them.
    You can proceed as follows:
      put the necessary quantity on a sheet of baking paper and fold it in two, possibly also crumpling the edges

    toast the stigmas, passing them over them with an iron at moderate heat or placing them on a radiator, on the lid of a boiling pot or near the fireplace or by heating them for a few seconds in the microwave oven

    Curiosities about saffron

    The name Crocus comes from the Greek Kroke, what does it mean filament, due to the characteristic stigmas of this plant.

    Already in ancient times Greece saffron had a reputation for being powerful aphrodisiac, as the myth of Crocus tells us.
    According to the myth, the filaments symbolize the bond between the young Krokos and a nymph. Love that was interrupted by the death of the young man.

    It is said that the gods wanted to intervene to preserve this very strong bond and transformed the nymph into sarsaparilla and the young into a crocus, so that they could live forever side by side.

    Video: Why Real Saffron Is So Expensive. So Expensive