Two years ago I compared saffron grown in the top three saffron producing countries in the world to try to answer the question Is Saffron from Kashmir the Most Exotic?. With May’s recipe of the month, Chicken and Saffron Curry, I want to explore how saffron is used in Indian cooking.
Saffron, harvested from the flower of the saffron crocus, is very special since it is the most expensive spice per ounce on the planet. To give you perspective on how rare this is, each crocus plant may have 4 flowers and each flower has 3 stigmas. That means 12 tiny threads per plant! Fortunately a tiny bit of saffron goes a long way. One needs just a pinch to flavor a bowl of rice or a dessert.
Saffron in Indian cooking is primarily used for its delicate honey and grassy aroma that it brings to food. It is also used for its concentrated yellow-orange color that it brings to food and as a dye for fabric.
Most often saffron is most often found in sweets or desserts, like Payasam. The threads add a subtle flavor and give it the distinctive color. The delicate flavor is a perfect match to a sophisticated dessert. Since this dish is milk based, it is very easy to see the threads floating in the liquid. Other desserts include some Kesari, halwa and paalada pradhaman recipes.
Saffron is found in many biryani recipes whether made with lamb, chicken or seafood. I use it in my Dum Pukt Chicken Biryani and Langoustine Biryani recipes. The recipe for biryani is very complicated and involves alternating layers of seasoned rice, meat and caramelized onions. Since biryani is so complicated, it is usually made for important dinners for guests or special events. Saffron, as part of this dish, implies that the meal is special.
Beyond these recipes, it is found in many rice dishes as well as some seafood dishes. I use it in Pondicherry Pouillabaise and Prawn Balchao. It occasionally appears in other chicken recipes like my Chicken and Saffron Curry. My Creamy Carrot Soup also takes advantage of the subtle flavor of saffron.
I have a few tips to using saffron to its best advantage:
- Stirring the saffron to a few tablespoons of warm milk (preferred) or water and letting it sit for about 20 minutes before adding it to the pot will bring out the maximum amount of flavor and color so you do not have to use as much as you would if you added it directly to the pot.
- Crushing the saffron threads between your fingers just before adding them to the warm milk will bring out more flavor.
- Don’t include saffron in recipes that are very heavily spiced or hot, as the flavor will be masked by the other flavors. Save your saffron for a dish that is worthy.
- Pretend saffron is rationed. Some people think that more is better and add it to a recipe by the handful. When I was in Dubai, a merchant told me that this is how many Saudi women add saffron this way. In my mind, this is not necessary and wastes the saffron. It just makes the color more intense but does not enhance the flavor.
- Store your saffron in an airtight container in a dark, cool place to keep it fresh. Use it promptly as the flavor deteriorates over time.
- If you don’t have saffron, turmeric can be used to give a golden color to a recipe.
Try my Chicken and Saffron Curry recipe to discover the magic of chicken with saffron.
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