Saffron is made from the stigmas and style of a crocus (crocus sativus linnaeus).
Saffron is used in cooking to provide aroma, flavour and colour. It is often referred to as a spice but it is much more than a spice. It is a food in its own right and is a rich source of Riboflavin (vitamin B2). It is used in medicines as well as cosmetics and perfumes.
Saffron is easily the most expensive spice. Each crocus flower is picked and then the stigma and style are removed from the flower. The picking of the crocus flower and extracting of the stigma and style are all done by hand, which explains why saffron is so expensive.
The stigma of a crocus flower is called a “thread” and there are between 150,000 and 1,000,000 threads in a kilogram of saffron. A kilogram of saffron retails for about US$2,000.
You can buy saffron in supermarkets in jars that contain 0.4 grams of saffron.
Most saffron is bought as threads and these are infused with water before being used. The threads are soaked in hot water and left for up to a day. The threads expand in size as the water is infused and great care must be taken to not allow the aroma to escape (by covering the container with a lid, saucer or clingfilm).
Be careful of having turmeric being passed off as saffron. Both dye food yellow but turmeric is vastly inferior to saffron in aroma and taste. Sometimes saffron is adulterated with turmeric and it is often hard to detect that this has happened (until you get home and use the saffron for cooking).
The main producer of saffron is Spain which produces about 40 tonnes of saffron annually (from 6,400,000,000 crocus flowers) with 90% of this crop coming from the Mancha region. Spain supplies 70% of the world market.
So what is a “pinch” of saffron? Quite a few recipes call for a pinch of saffron but people’s hands and fingers are different sizes and a pinch from a big container is often larger than a pinch from a small container. One rule of thumb that is often used is that 0.1 gram is a pinch. But this amount is way too small to register on a kitchen scale. The easiest way is to get what you’ve bought and count the threads. If you buy the usual 0.4 gram jar, then you should split the threads up into 4 lots. Each lot will be about 0.1 gram and constitutes a pinch.