Life is short. Cook with saffron.
My motto strengthened when I started growing saffron and stopped buying it.
Ancient people plucked the reddish stamens of Crocus sativus then dried it for natural cold remedies, to treat inflammation and menstrual issues. Science recently confirmed these benefits by identifying the chemicals safranal, a-crocin, and picrocrocin, which give it therapeutic properties.
My favorite saffron use is within my cuisine. I add it to rice, soups, curries, and desserts. Moroccan recipes are great places to find both saffron and coriander uses, putting your garden’s cilantro to work.
If you found a staggeringly good price on saffron, I have bad news: It was probably adulterated by turmeric, safflower, or marigold petals, all of which give foods a similar yellow hue. True saffron soars over $1,500/lb. Identifying it involves an experienced nose because the real deal has a distinct, heady aroma. So how do you know if the saffron you purchased is real? (If you choked at the price, it’s probably real.) Know your supplier. Or try growing saffron in your own garden.
“But … it’s more valuable than gold! So, it can’t be easy to grow!”
First: Commerce depends on supply versus demand. The industry thrives on people who believe their only option is buying it.
Second: That price is per pound. It takes 100,000-250,000 saffron plants to produce one pound, and you only need a few threads for most recipes.
Can You Get Rich Growing Saffron?
That’s tricky. More than 80% of the world’s saffron is hand-picked in Iran, where wages are substantially lower. That affects market price. It also takes a lot of time and land to cultivate the 100,000+ plants to make $1,500. Growing saffron in the States means adding labor costs or taking a huge profit cut if you attempt to compete with foreign rates. I’m currently cultivating corms to naturalize on our non-profit farming project in Zambia, but we’ll also have to establish trade with richer nations such as South Africa, or the Zambians won’t make any profit.
Instead of competing on a large scale, try growing saffron for sale in local specialty shops. Or add value to other products you produce, such as making saffron and goat milk ice cream or saffron angel food cake from your fresh eggs. Can you imagine the added profit of infusing saffron into your locally grown, organic honey?
Growing Saffron, Step by Step
Breaking out of that “growing saffron is hard” mentality is like admitting that, even in northern climates, you can make healthy sweet potato recipes from your garden’s own sweet potatoes. It can be done.
Find Crocus sativus bulbs … and be sure they aren’t any other type of crocus! These purple-blossomed corms are available for pre-order in spring, purchased and shipped in fall, and planted in September within the Northern hemisphere. Though they are “corms,” most sites will call them “bulbs.”
Order corms from suppliers with the highest ratings, because some sell older corms and keep younger ones for themselves. This is important because the best flowers bloom in years one to three.
Saffron needs a lot of sun, a little nutrition, and well-drained soil. Remember these successfully cultivate in Persian deserts. I put mine in garden corners, where other plants wither in the heat because the sprinkler doesn’t reach that far. Consider containers that you can move into the sun and out of the excess water.
When I first started growing saffron, Carol Ort of the University of Nevada Reno’s Cooperative Extension gave me valuable, area-specific advice such as planting in cages. If your area has burrowing rodents like gophers, consider making a “cage” out of chicken wire and bury that in the ground, filling with dirt, and planting corms within the cage. Rodents love crocus corms!
When corms arrive, don’t wait long to plant because they can dry up. The rounded bottom has a dimple; the top is pointed with a tassel from dried foliage. Loosen the soil in your sunniest, most well-drained area, and mix in a light fertilizer like compost or rabbit manure. Plant at least three inches apart, with two to three inches of soil over top. Water generously that first time then hold back, sprinkling only during dry spells of over a week.
Skinny green spikes will emerge. Flowers come soon after. Each corm should produce at least two blossoms, though some larger corms have been known to produce 24! When flowers open, don’t wait. Pinch off the blossom, being careful not to pull up bulbs.
Unlike many flowers, saffron doesn’t reproduce by seed. Saffron naturalizes and within a couple years, you can dig and separate corms, replanting. I discovered this with delight when I accidentally unearthed some saffron while planting my onions. The “mother” corm had eight “daughters” which, though not yet mature, would all be mothers themselves someday. I replanted the corms and marked the area so I wouldn’t disturb it again.
After harvesting flowers, stop watering. Let the snow fall, let the ground freeze. And don’t let animals into that area, because they love the highly toxic foliage.
Leaves may disappear by June. Mark this area so you don’t accidentally disturb it. Once foliage dries up, water no more than once a month, or not at all if you receive summer rain storms. In September, water generously to start them growing again. Carol Ort says, “If you wait until Mother Nature provides us with a good rain, then the flowering can be delayed well into cold weather. I have picked saffron flowers when it has been snowing—flowers seem okay but not a lot of fun for the person doing the picking.”
Commercial saffron producers dig up and redistribute bulbs every three years. This allows daughter bulbs to grow within their own spaces so they can have their own daughters. Neglecting to dig and redistribute means poor flowering the following years. But as you dig and separate, you will see how one bulb turns into 10 or 20!
Preparing Saffron After Harvest
When are saffron flowers most potent and at their highest quality? When they are fully open, often during the second day of bloom. Venture into the garden midday, when the sun warms the blossoms and produces an alluring aroma. Red stigmas will have golden tips. Pick flowers and bring them inside.
Carefully pluck only the three red stigmas. Discard the rest, because all other plant parts are poisonous. Place stigmas in a well-ventilated area to dry. (I place them on a coffee filter, covering with another filter to keep dust away.) Each time you harvest, drop new stigmas onto this pile.
After harvest, you’re not done! If you use saffron now, you won’t get any flavor.
Heat stigmas in an oven set on warm or in a food dehydrator. (I stapled my coffee filter into a little packet then placed it within my forced-air dehydrator, at 115°F.) Heat for an hour then transfer threads to an airtight bottle.
Place in a cool, dark, dry area for three to six months. Impatient? Might I suggest buying saffron to use while you wait? Storage time is necessary for a quality product.
Will you be growing saffron this fall? We would love to hear your stories or see photos.
Before using saffron, you must first “bloom it.” This involves steeping threads in a hot liquid such as water or milk and letting it sit 10 minutes, before adding it to recipes.
|Rice||Add a pinch to boiling water as rice cooks. Also, add a pat of butter for rich flavor.|
|Honey||Heat honey within a pan or crockpot. Add dry saffron. Let steep at least 10 minutes before bottling.|
|Ice Cream||The day before, bloom saffron in 1/4-1/2 cup of the recipe’s required cream. Proceed with the recipe. Use goat milk instead of cow milk for a distinctive Mediterranean flavor.|
|Angel Food Cake||Bloom saffron in 1 Tbsp water, being careful not to use too much so you don’t water down the recipe. After water cools, whisk it into egg whites then proceed with the recipe.|
|Yogurt||Follow a recipe for homemade yogurt, sprinkling saffron into milk during the initial heating stage. Whisk to combine when you inoculate with existing yogurt or cultures.|
|Dipping Oil||Either: 1. Heat oil in a pan, sprinkle in dry saffron, then cool and bottle. 2. Combine oil and dry saffron then bottle and cap tightly, setting in a sunny window for several months. Because olive oil can be strongly flavored, use extra-virgin or combine with grapeseed or fractionated coconut oil.|