Saffron - what's the point?

petra_gwDecember 17, 2013

Wanted to bake some Marzipan buns and the (Swedish) recipe I have calls for saffron (and cardamom, which added a lovely flavor and is way more inexpensive).

I ordered a smallish amount from a reputable source and when it arrived noticed it smelled quite pungent, so it was definitely fresh and not stale. Baked the buns and while they had a nice yellowish color, neither hubby nor I could detect any taste dimension beyond that imparted by the other ingredients.

The recipe did specify to pan-heat, crush, and steep the saffron in melted butter prior to using, which I did.

We had paella in Spain years ago and also couldn't detect the saffron imparting any flavor whatsoever. I did read you will not detect saffron unless you've added too much, but if that's the case, what is the point of using it? If it's to impart color, there are cheaper means to make stuff yellowish. It's frightfully expensive and seems to me like The Emperor's New Clothes?

What do you seasoned foodies think?

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I don't agree. Saffron has a definite taste. I make Swedish saffron buns, called Lucia Buns, for December 13 every year. A quarter-teaspoon of crushed saffron threads dissolved in warm milk gives them a lovely golden color and a saffron flavor.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 9:27PM
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Cloudy, so you can definitely taste it? What does it taste like?
I wonder if some people lack saffron taste receptors. If so, hubby and I definitely belong to that group.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 9:32PM
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I love love love saffron - used with a light touch. I can definitely taste it - miss it if it is not there - but it is subtle. It is awful if too strong. I like it in paella, boullabaise, rice, breads.... But you are correct about the price - can't imagine picking it. If I could not taste it I would happily use tumeric.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 9:34PM
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I can't speak to your recipe but I definitely find saffron adds something more than color to paellas, risotto, etc. IMO it should add flavor without being overpowering as a stand-out ingredient. Kind of like salt. In many cases if there's no salt, it's bland. So much salt that you taste salt, you've killed it. Somewhere in between the two is "seasoned."

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 9:44PM
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Saffron, in the amounts called for in the savory dishes in which I use it, is almost more like a presence than a distinct flavor. Yet, when omitted, its absence is discernible. I haven't had Lucia Buns, but bouillabaisse, risotto, and especially paella, etc. , would definitely suffer were the saffron deleted.

    Bookmark   December 17, 2013 at 9:57PM
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Well, Petra, just so you don't feel too lonely, neither can I!!! I use a tiny amount of turmeric if I want the yellow colour. Perhaps it is a question of missing receptors hahaha

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 7:51AM
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I've twice made a desert of pears poached in white wine with cardamom and saffron, and I can taste both flavors. I was fortunate enough to have been given a bag of saffron years ago when I was new to this forum. (Thank you again, Lee!) I've used it from time to time, but still haven't used it up, as it was a good size bag. Remarkably, it still has flavor.

It's hard to describe the flavor, but I would say it's kind of a musky flavor.


    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 9:39AM
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Petra, powdered saffron is often something else, but I think from your description you used saffron threads. I've had powdered saffron that was bitter. Maybe you didn't use enough threads? It's a bit hard to measure just how many threads should be in a quarter teaspoon. Or maybe it was just not good saffron, although I don't think it completely loses its flavor. Certainly it lasts for years in a glass jar.

Some people don't like the taste, and describe it as medicinal. Maybe they use too much. But it's like any other taste, some like it, some don't. And some people, I guess, don't taste it at all.

In baked goods I would emphatically not recommend using anything else that makes food yellow. Just use other flavors and forget the color. Your recipe sounds interesting. I don't think I've seen one that uses both saffron and cardamom. I always want to make some cardamom thing at Christmas but our traditional baked things take so much time I don't branch out!

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 9:41AM
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Saffron purportedly has medicinal qualities, which is why I add it to my chicken soup and vegetarian comfort soup. But only in small quantities, because too much and it doesn't taste good. I agree that it is like salt, it enhances the flavors of the other ingredients. To me it adds a richness like butter. I would say saffron kind of tastes buttery, so it is not a strong taste, just a rich one. And like butter, if you leave it out, it will not necessarily be noticed or missed, but add a pat of butter to something and everyone raves about how delicious and rich it tastes, lol!

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 9:53AM
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I've made paella both with and without saffron threads, and cannot detect any difference other than color.

My large paella holds very roughly 10 pounds of finished paella. Suppose we use $15 of safffron in making it (1/2 gram), the saffron will be 0.01% by weight of the paella. The other ingredients include some strongly flavoured stuff - garlic, chorizo, tomatoes, rabbit, snails, etc depending on your paella. Is it reasonable to think we can really taste the 0.01% of the paella that is saffron? We can subtly taste the salt that we added, but that was probably at least 2 tsp or 0.2% by weight, or 20 times more salt than saffron. Does saffron have a taste twenty times more intense than salt? Considering that we have taste receptors specifically for salt (it being necessary for life) but not specifically for saffron (it being entirely optional for life).

Someday, I'll make two identical paellas, one with saffron and one with tumeric, and have some friends over for a blind taste test. But it won't be paella weather for many months. Anyone want to do such an experiment with a winter-friendly dish?

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 10:16AM
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Petra, I rather agree with you! Can't say that I can taste it either. Mostly I use it in breads and buns, but I will try it in the next batch of chicken soup. What I have now looks to be of good quality, but it was gifted to me and I won't be buying any myself.

I have discovered the lovely flavor of cardamom and plan to make more Swedish Cardmom Coffee Bread for gifts this week. This is a braided, sweet, yeast bread that doesn't have the spice and sugar filling of other Swedish breads. There is a whole tablespoon of cardamom in the recipe! Delightful!


    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 10:18AM
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I can see that the saffron could get lost in a dish with strong garlic and seafood flavors, but not in a yeast bread.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 11:06AM
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I don't think anything can replace that distinct saffron color and flavor. I don't but it anymore.
I've come up with a replacement that we like just fine. A NewOrleans tradition using annatto
paste for bbq shrimp and seafood brothy stews.
I just made one for the upcoming holiday week.
A 1/4 cup achote seed, 4 whole cloves , a star anice, 8 all spice seeds, a bit of cardamom, and a grating of nutmeg. In a spice grinder, blended, and added to a 1/2 cup of neutral oil...i used grape seed. Do i recommend this for your home? Maybe not, but this is our blend and very balanced.
I think it has been 4-5 days and just stirred it. The 'mud' spice settles to the bottom and i use the oil. Maybe just cardamom and achote would be a good blend.
Worth a try if you want the earthy flavor.
Saffron does get lost in our often over-spiced dishes with lots of garlic, etc....

This post was edited by sleevendog on Wed, Dec 18, 13 at 12:20

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 12:19PM
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Thanks so much for all the input and opinions! I am glad to read there are others who cannot taste saffron. :o)

Yes, it was saffron threads, not ground. The recipe calls for toasting the threads in a hot pan for 30 seconds or so, and then crumbling them, which I did.

Inspired by John Liu's double paella idea, I am going to make a double batch of the buns for testing purposes (good excuse, haha), one with saffron and one without, and see if there is a taste difference.

I am pretty sure it's good quality saffron, it was from a reputable source and the scent was quite pungent when I opened the little glass container and it did impart a pretty color. Here's the recipe. It is very tasty and the dough is not very sweet, it lets the marzipan shine through and the citrus taste of the cardamom is lovely.

Marzipan Buns with Saffron

Makes 20 buns

7 oz. frozen (to allow for shredding) marzipan

25 saffron threads

4 tbsp unsalted butter

1 cup milk, plus more as needed

2 packets active dry yeast or bulk equivalent

1/2 cup thick Greek yogurt or Quark, if you have it

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp freshly ground cardamom

1/2 cup chopped almonds
Egg Wash:

1 large egg

1 tsp milk

Coarse sugar for sprinkling

Grate the frozen marzipan on the large holes of a cheese grater and return to freezer til ready to use (this keeps it from being sticky and allows for sprinkling over the dough).

In a small skillet, toast saffron over medium-low heat for about 30 seconds, or just until it becomes fragrant. Finely crush saffron with your fingers or mortar and pestle. Return crushed saffron to the skillet, add butter until melted, turn off heat and let the saffron steep in the butter while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Warm milk to lukewarm. Stir yeast into the warm milk, and let stand for 5 minutes.

Combine flour, sugar, salt and cardamom in large mixing bowl. Combine the saffron butter milk and yeast, add Greek yogurt or quark. Add to dry ingredients and mix until dough forms. If the dough is too sticky by touch, add a bit more flour. If it's too dry, add a bit more milk.

Transfer dough to large oiled bowl, cover with a damp towel. Let rise until doubled in size.

Lightly grease two baking sheets with butter. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and stretch or roll it into a rough rectangle. Sprinkle the shredded marzipan and the nuts evenly over the dough.

Roll the dough lengthwise into a log and pinch the seam shut. Slice the log into 20 rounds. Place on baking sheets about 1 1/2 inches apart. Let the buns rise another 30-40 minutes. In the meantime, pre-heat oven to 425º F.

Beat the egg with 1 tsp milk to make an egg wash. Gently brush the tops of the buns (be careful to not deflate them) with the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until golden, then remove from oven. Let cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to finish cooling completely.

Keep in airtight containers for a day or two, or freeze.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 12:32PM
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Seems like enough saffron. (Although, how long are the threads? If they are broken short.... But I'm guessing 25 long threads might be about what I get in my 1/4 teaspoon, and that's for a recipe with much more flour.)
Everything I've seen about heating saffron says it's important to do it over indirect heat, like in a custard cup over hot water. Could toasting it directly have done something undesirable? I can't imagine that it would become tasteless, though.
And now I must step away from the computer and go bake more Stollen.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 12:44PM
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Some of the threads were broken, but I compensated by using 2 broken in lieu of one.
I was really careful to not overheat or scorch, I heated the pan up a bit and added them and stirred for the allotted amount of time. They did get fragrant and colored the butter very nicely, pretty much like Sleevendog's mixture above.
Cloudy, do you have a great recipe for Stollen? If so, would you post it, pretty please? My last few attempts have been less than impressive.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 12:52PM
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Maybe I'm not using enough threads when I add it to bread recipes. I'll try increasing the amount a little as I'd like the dough to be a brighter color.


    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 1:07PM
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Teresa, the amount I used did make the dough a nice golden color, very appetizing.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 1:49PM
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Petra, I wrote out the Stollen recipe for my son a few years ago. If there is too much direction, that's why. It's a Paula Peck recipe with some changes I made. The candied apricots from Australia are my idea and they are wonderful. Our tradition is to have Stollen and coffee, and milk for the kids, on Christmas morning as we open presents.
You really need the vanilla sugar to finish it. It takes a few days, so right now, stick some vanilla beans into a jar of powdered sugar. The just before you cut it, put some in a strainer and tap it over the Stollen like heavy snow.

Dresden Stollen

Rich Sour Cream Dough:

2 packages yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk, scalded and cooled
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 egg yolks
5 to 6 cups flour (I use King Arthur all-purpose, which is higher in gluten than other all-purpose flour)
1 cup (2 sticks) softened unsalted butter

Dissolve the yeast in about 1/4 cup water. Combine all the wet stuff (not the butter). Add enough flour to make a medium-firm dough. Beat in the butter. Knead about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic.
Put in a buttered bowl, covered, in the refrigerator for at least four hours before using. [I often shorten or even skip this. It’s a trade-off. Chilling makes it easier to work in the sense of less sticky, but much harder to work in the fruit. All this depends on how firm you’ve made the dough; you don’t want too much flour or it won’t be coffee-cake-like, but too little and the butter and sour cream will make it very hard to work. I should mention that I have changed the original recipe by leaving out an additional stick of butter.]
If you don’t chill it, do let it rise before kneading in the fruit. Sometimes I chill it, then get out and let it warm up and rise a bit more.
It will rise in the refrigerator; keep it from over-rising by punching it down, and you’ll be able to keep it a couple of days, supposedly.

The Stollen

1 cup white sultana raisins
3/4 cup currants
1 to 1 1/4 cups diced candied apricots
1/4 cup cognac
1/2 cup blanched, sliced, lightly toasted almonds
Rich Sour Cream Dough
melted unsalted butter
powdered vanilla sugar

Mix fruit with cognac. Let stand at least one hour. Drain if there’s any excess liquid.
Knead fruit and almonds into dough.
Cut dough in half. Roll each piece into an oval. Fold almost but not quite in half lengthwise. Lightly roll the folded dough with a rolling pin. Place well apart on a large buttered baking sheet. Let rise until not quite doubled. Brush gently with melted butter.

Bake at 375. Bake about 45 minutes, says the recipe, but start checking long before that. There are so many variables here, shape, density, etc.
Brush again with butter while still warm. [I don’t do this any more. Enough is enough.]
Then brush after they cool. [Ditto. Paula Peck died of a heart attack, as you can imagine from this recipe.]
Dust the cooled Stollen heavily with vanilla sugar. Wrap in foil.
Dust again before serving, in thin slices.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 2:58PM
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Cloudy, thank you so much!! It looks delicious and I think I gained weight just from reading. :) I grew up with stollen and can take it or leave it, but hubby loves it and I enjoy baking it for him.

Don't think there's time to order the Australian Apricots, but I do have plenty of vanilla sugar!

Re. brushing with butter, my grandmother always buttered the stollen right after it came out of the oven, and then covered with powdered sugar several times before storing it in the cold pantry to "ripen". It made sort of a hard crust and I guess it helped to keep the stollen from drying out. And remember, Jim Fixx also died of a heart attack so maybe it wasn't the butter. ; ]

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 4:02PM
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Petra, some grocery stores have the glacéed apricots in little plastic containers. I usually get mine at a bulk-food stand at a farmer's market. The original recipe has diced candied fruit and peel.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 4:11PM
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Yes, that's what I normally use, candied fruit peel and dried sultanas, cherries and whatever other dried fruit looks good. Our local grocery stores don't have a large selection of candied fruit, but I candied some orange and lemon peels that will work great.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 4:25PM
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Okay, the saffron threads are steeping in the hot milk, per the recipe, but there is no lovely yellow color developing. I used two largish pinches, heated the milk to about 190F turned off the heat and added the saffron. I'm going to let it cool down a bit before I start making the bread, but the only yellow color is coming from the butter I added to melt.

I've watched Spaniards make paella on TV travel shows and they add the saffron right on top of the rice, no steeping/warming or anything. Then they add in the broth and proceed to cook the chicken, rice, seasonings, etc. before they add the seafood. When the huge pan of paella is ready, the rice is a nice golden color.

What am I doing wrong?


    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 6:39PM
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strawchicago 5a IL

Agree with Petra, a few minutes ago I threw away a jar of Saffron, it's quite stinky after a few years. Now I use Tumeric in my paella, much healthier with a nice golden color.

Last night I made chicken curry, and grabbed the wrong spice, turmeric, instead of curry ... My husband didn't complain. It wasn't bad ... I added curry in later, and it developed a sweeter taste.

There's edible yellow Calendula flower, or "pot marigold". It's has many health benefits. Here's an excerpt of link below:

"•Calendula extracts are known to show anti-cancer effects, especially in diseases like leukemia, melanoma, fibrosarcoma, breast, prostate, cervix, lung, pancreas and colorectal cancers.
•The flower extract is used to treat bee stings and scorpion bites.
•Since it is anti-inflammatory, calendula constricts blood vessels and helps stop bleeding.
•Calendula tincture is used to treat ailments like bruises, sprains, pulled muscles and sores.
•The oil is applied directly to the ear for reducing earache. Calendula tea is prepared and consumed for treating ear infections.
•Calendula tea is used as eyewash for sore, reddened eyes.
•The tea is also used to aid digestion, stimulate the immune system, detoxify the body and regulate the menstruation cycle.
•Calendula helps in forming new blood vessels and heals wounds such as cuts and scratches.
•Its oil stimulates blood circulation and induces sweating, thus reducing body heat and fever.
•Calendula is applied topically to aid abrasions, acne and burns.
•When taken orally, calendula helps in soothing stomach ulcers and inflammation"

Have anyone here used Calendula flower in cooking or in salads? They grow wild in my garden, and attract lots of beneficial insects. Below is a picture of Calendula in my garden:

Here is a link that might be useful: Health benefits of Calendula

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 7:27PM
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Teresa, that's weird! I used butter to steep it in after heating and crushing the saffron, but I would think milk would be fine to extract the color. Did you heat and crush it? As soon as the butter started to melt, all of it turned reddish/yellowish.

Strawberry, thanks for the link, very educational. I've seen calendula creams to aid in healing bruises before, but didn't know it has so many other uses.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 8:14PM
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teresa_nc7're supposed to crush the saffron threads? I did not know that. Wonder if it makes a lot of difference?


    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 11:06PM
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It definitely adds a new dimension to rice but I couldn't tell you what it really tastes like but there is "something" there! I get mine at Trader Joes - something like $6.99 for the tiniest of bottles. I make it last as long as possible, luckily it doesn't take much in my rice dishes, just a pinch.

    Bookmark   December 18, 2013 at 11:10PM
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My friend always toasts her saffron threads before making paella.
Best paella I have ever tasted.
I make saffron buns at Christmas time....haven't had much luck with the Trader Joe's saffron but got some in a speciality shop and will try it this year.
I think saffron is an acquired taste.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 1:25AM
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Agree, Carol. This T-tiny bottle of saffron that I have is from Trader Joe's. I think this is one ingredient that I can live without - due to the price and variable quality out there.


    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 8:13AM
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Thanks Petra for asking for CC's stollen recipe. I thought I had saved it but can't find it and I was too guilty to ask!!

Strawberry I am so jealous of your calendula. I do not have the knack with that plant! I plant it almost every year, from seed or from starters, but it always languishes for some reason, just does not thrive, gets spindly and doesn't bloom all that much. It always seems to look beautiful in other gardens, just not mine! I have the same problem with feverfew, the feverfew gods do not smile on me!

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 10:32AM
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strawchicago 5a IL

Hi lpinkmountaiin: Thank you for your compliment .. that's what I love about this forum: the gracious & helpful spirits of folks here. Calendula likes alkaline clay .. my soil is rock-hard clay with pH 7.7 ... and Calendula & dandelions go nuts on my dolomitic/limestone clay.

Solsthumper posted in "What's for dinner" thread about the stingy apple tree. My fruit trees were that way .. until I used dry-chicken manure, sold at Menards $8 for 25 lbs., also cheap at HomeDepot & Lowe's. Dry chicken manure is high in boron, zinc, and copper ... most soil lack that. With chicken manure, my fruit trees were so loaded with fruits that a branch was broken ... compare to the years with zero fruit, and zero fertilizer.

More info. about Calendula from eHow:

"Calendula or marigold flowers are edible and have been called the poor man's saffron. With flavors ranging from peppery to bitter, calendula blooms are used for colorful garnishes and salads as well as in recipes, though it is best to use the petals exclusively to avoid the bitter greens. Suitable for sauces, soups, and to add its vibrant color to cheeses and scrambled eggs."

Here is a link that might be useful: Ehow on Calendula

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 11:29AM
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Adore the edible flowers. Put in many varieties years ago when i started my vegetable garden.
I'd forgotten that calendula adds a nice color and flavor to rice and bean dishes.
I grow zucchini just for the flowers to stuff with herbed goat cheese. (i get plenty of the baseball bat zuks that grow hidden and unnoticed)

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 12:01PM
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Years ago I sowed some calendulas by the Winter Sowing method - my word! what a sight! I think they all lived, bloomed, set seed and came up again the next spring. They obviously loved my "vintage" soil as do most plants, shrubs, and trees. I had so many in my front yard, my neighbor sort of helped herself --- without asking, I might add. I would have dug and given her all she wanted, but instead, she dug them herself and planted them right in her front yard for all to see.


    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 2:54PM
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^^ What did your neighbor say when you caught her? A friend had just put her house on the market and caught a neighbor digging up her gorgeous iris. He said he just wanted to make sure to get some before the house was sold. Some people are nervy beyond belief.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 4:40PM
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