Saffron: The colourful spice

Journal Article
Author(s): Charles Spence
Year: 2023

Saffron (Crocus Sativus L. stigmas), the stamen of the crocus flower, is often claimed to be the world’s most expensive spice. As such, it stands as an especially salient example of people’s longstanding desire for visually-appealing food colours, given that the bitter taste of saffron stamens, caused by the presence of picrocrocin. The aroma of high quality saffron is often described as smelling sweet, floral, and spicy. Sometimes, it is also described as having a hay-like aroma and a metallic note. Saffron has long been used as a dye, as a medicine, and also as a cosmetics/perfumery ingredient. However, the spice would appear to have fallen out of favour in the 19th Century (possibly due to its expense), its use being restricted to a relatively small number of dishes. There are, however, signs of a resurgence of interest in this natural colorant with a range potentially beneficial functional properties attributable to the stigma, as well as to other parts of the plant. Minimal exposure to heat during cooking is recommended though to help preserve the aroma/flavour.