Saffron Water – A Lovely Shortcut

Saffron WaterSaffron is both tasty and expensive.  In fact, I have seen it referred to as the most expensive spice in the world.  Not sure about the veracity of this claim, but it is most certainly, the most expensive spice we buy.  The spice vendor that we go through typically has it for about $18 per gram; in excess of $500 per ounce.  Ouch.

Now I understand that the process of harvesting the stigmas off of a specific type of crocus, drying it, and then shipping it around the world to my kitchen has some inherent costs.  Unfortunately, knowing this does not stop me from crying out in financial pain when a recipe calls for saffron.  We use saffron a lot in Moroccan and other Mediterranean recipes and all cooks have to work within a budget.  Saffron water to the rescue..well, somewhat.

Most recipes call for adding a pinch of the saffron threads directly to what you are cooking.  As it turns out, this is a pretty inefficient way to extract the flavor from the dried threads.  If you prepare what amounts to a tea from the threads, and then freeze this into ice, you really stretch the saffron, since flavors are extracted efficiently, and you have repackaged this flavorful substance into a modular and easily stored object.

In order to make saffron water, measure out a generous 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads.  Heat a small skillet until it pretty much is smoking (assuming you are using cast iron).  Remove from heat and add the whole threads to the skillet.  Crush the threads with the back of a spoon and keep in motion as the skillet cools, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Scrape saffron out into a bowl containing 1 cup of hot water.  Allow to cool.

At this point, you can dispense your prized saffron water into and ice-cube tray and freeze.  A 2 tablespoon cube of saffron water will substitute for a pinch of dried saffron thread in a recipe.  They should keep at least two months if kept frozen in a sealed container; Ziploc bags work great.  Working with the cubes instead of the dried product will not make purchasing saffron less painful, but it is a slightly more efficient way to extract the flavor and will help you avoid the temptation of adding more than you need of the dried threads.  Thanks to Paula Wolfert for this morale building tip (altered here, as we heat ours to a higher temperature), as presented in her book, The Food of Morocco.



  1. Gail O'Byrne says

    Thanks for this method of stretching saffron! I will be making your Chicken Tagine w/Apricots and Almonds recipe tomorrow and found this there, but one question: I followed your directions exactly (not much to it…) and just want to make sure that the saffron basically burns in the hot pan? All the threads eventually turned black and you don’t say that that will happen, but just using common sense tells me that that’s what would happen to those delicate threads in a pan that hot. And, as all the threads sunk to the bottom of my hot water, do I need to make sure to distribute them roughly evenly in my 2TBSP portions?
    Thank you! Gail

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