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Synonym: crocus

botanical name: Crocus sativus



Saffron is a purely cultivated plant with relatively high demands on soil and climate. It stems presumably from a wild form from the eastern Mediterranean. Saffron was already known in ancient Greece; in the 7th century it reached China and about 300 years later Spain, then France and England. Among the main producers today are Iran, Spain, Greece and India. It is also cultivated in southern France, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the USA and Switzerland.



Saffron is the most expensive seasoning. It is sold year round, either ground or as whole threads, or stigmas.


Appearance, taste, characteristics

The perennial saffron crocuses belong botanically to the lily family (Liliaceae). They grow to 10-30 cm in height, and their leaves are long, about 3 mm wide and sprout directly from the bulb.

In the autumn, saffron develops the blossoms typical of crocuses. These are light violet with dark veins, and each plant has in the middle three orange-red stigmas: the saffron threads. Only this part of the plant is used as a spice. The stigmas meet in the blossom on a small, light-yellow style.

Even today, the fine, 2- to 4-cm-long threads are still harvested by hand. Then they are dried in the sun or artificially at very low heat. Drying plays an important role in the extraction of saffron, because while drying it develops its characteristic aroma.


Saffron has a strong, heavy scent with a flowery note and tastes aromatic, slightly bitter, spicy, somewhat sharp and earthy. Its intensive yellow colour dissolves immediately in water and is popular in cooking to add colour to foods.



Dried saffron contains 0.4-1.3% essential oil, and one of the main components is safranal. This forms from the bitter substance picrocrocin during drying and storage and is responsible, along with other degradation products of this substance, for the typical aroma of saffron. The picrocrocin content in the spice is 3-13% and contributes to the bitter taste.


The strong colouring effect of saffron is due to the crocins it contains. These are water-soluble and make up 19-25% of the spice. Even very small amounts dye liquids markedly yellow. Carotenoids and flavonoids are also found in saffron, and the fat content can be up to 10%.


Harmful substances

In high doses saffron is harmful to health. At the amount of 1.5 g per day no harmful effects have been observed, but as little as 5-20 g can be lethal for an adult. Only very small amounts are normally used as a spice, and, on the basis of current knowledge, this dose is not harmful.


Quality criteria, optimal storage conditions

Saffron is traded in different quality categories, depending on the degree of purity of the threads.

* Selected saffron contains the pure floral stigmas and is therefore the most valuable.


* Natural saffron is adulterated with the adherent yellow pistils of the flower, which are, however, permitted to account for up to 10% of the weight.


The best quality in Spain is called "Coupé", followed by "Mancha", "Rio" and "Sierra". The best Iranian saffron is "Sargol". Inferior goods are brownish rather than brick-red.


Saffron is best bought as whole threads, because ground saffron may well be adulterated with parts of other plants. At tourist markets even ground calendula (pot marigold) blossoms, curcuma or safflower petals are passed off as saffron.


Saffron is sensitive to light and hygroscopic (attracting moisture), and it must therefore be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark place. You should buy only small amounts, because even when saffron is properly stored it loses some of its aroma.


Presumed effect on health

Owing to its slightly bitter and aromatic taste, saffron is presumed to stimulate the appetite and digestion.


In folk medicine saffron is used to treat paroxysmal coughing and menstrual and stomach problems and is supposed to alleviate nervousness and cramps. In traditional Chinese medicine saffron is also used for depression and to treat bruises.


Therapeutic intake of saffron during pregnancy is not recommended, because it cannot be ruled out that it may promote miscarriages.


Form of consumption, use, processing, practical tips for preparation

Saffron is used only in dried form and is sold either as whole threads or pulverized.


Due to its strong colouring property it is used not only to season food but also for optical reasons. For dishes that contain a large amount of liquid, the threads are rubbed and then either they or the powder are added directly to the pot. Otherwise, saffron should be soaked in some warm water before it is used.


If you are using saffron chiefly for colour, you can cook it with the food. The longer it cooks, the more intense is its colouring. For seasoning purposes, however, it should be cooked only briefly.

Saffron is used mainly in Southeast Asia, the Orient, and in Mediterranean cuisine. Primarily meat, fish and rice dishes are prepared with it. In Spain it is used in the well-known rice dish paella, which is combined with seafood or other meat, in Italy for risotto and in India for pilaf. Fish soups (bouillabaisse) and stews are also popularly seasoned with saffron.


Saffron also goes well with poultry, mushrooms, braised vegetables, egg dishes and vegetable soups, particularly with cauliflower, pumpkin, asparagus or carrots. Even sweet foods such as ice cream, rice pudding and other puddings taste good with saffron.


Especially in Sweden and England, baked goods and cheese are coloured with saffron. In the food industry it is normally substituted by cheaper dyes, however.


Seasoning tip

Saffron should always be used only sparingly, as the taste is otherwise too intensive. About 0.1 g is sufficient to season a dish for three to four persons, and still lesser amounts normally suffice for colouring.


Saffron is most effective when it is used as the only seasoning. In fish dishes it harmonizes with fennel, but it also goes with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, nutmeg, garlic or pepper.



Saffron presumably owes its name to the Arabs, who called it za'fran, meaning 'to be yellow'.





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