What Does Saffron Spice Taste Like?


Upclose image of saffron strands.

Wondering what saffron tastes like?  If you are new to it and looking to give this prized spice a try, read on to learn about its unique taste and complementary flavor profiles.

Saffron, known as the world’s most expensive spice, is harvested from the saffron crocus flower. The spice is made from the red threads, or stigmas, of the flower, which is dried and used in a variety of dishes. 

The high price of the spice is due to the labor-intensive process of harvesting it. Each saffron crocus flower produces only three yellow tips, or stigmas, which must be picked by hand.

 It takes around 75,000 flowers to produce one pound of high-quality threads, making it one of the most expensive spices in the world.

It’s popularly used in Indian cuisine, especially in sweets like Saffron Pistachio Ice Cream and Greek Yogurt Shrikhand

Three kesar pista ice cream scoops in a small white bowl with a green cloth in the background.

High Quality Saffron

When buying saffron, it is important to make sure you are getting the real deal as there are many fake products on the market. 

Authentic saffron threads will have a deep red color.  Their shape is wider at one end than the other. They should also have a strong aroma and flavor.

  When cooking with it, it is important to remember that a little goes a long way. Just a pinch of can add a beautiful golden color and a rich flavor to a dish.

Using It

There are many ways to use the spice including tea, Saffron Water, and Saffron-flavored Ice Cream

The best way to use it is to soak the threads in warm water for 15-20 minutes, which will help to release the maximum flavor and color of the spice. Once the saffron threads (crushed into a fine powder is best!)  have been soaked, they can be added to a dish to give it floral flavors.

You can even use it to make syrup like for Gulab Jamun Cake or Gulab Jamun Pancakes.

Saffron water in a small bowl.

When cooking with the unique spice it is important to use a small amount as a little goes a long way in terms of adding flavor and color to a dish.

Storing: It should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. This will help to preserve the flavor and color of the spice.

So, What Does Saffron Taste Like?

It has a strong, aromatic flavor that can be described as both bitter and sweet. When used in small amounts, the taste of saffron is subtle, but it can quickly become overpowering if too much is used.

The saffron taste is unique and can be difficult to describe. Depending on the amount used and the person, the flavors experienced can be different.

The flavor of saffron is complex and distinctive, with a delicate balance of sweet and bitter notes. Some people describe it as floral and slightly honey-like, while others describe it as slightly bitter with a metallic aftertaste (likely too much was used for those people!). 

Glass of saffron water.

Bloom a few strands to make Saffron Water and give it a try!

It’s important to use it sparingly to avoid overwhelming the dish. A pinch can go a long way in adding a rich and flavorful taste to your food.

While saffron’s flavor cannot be precisely replicated by any other ingredient, some spices such as turmeric, cumin, and cinnamon share some similar flavor notes. However, it has a more distinct and complex flavor profile.

When using it in your cooking, remember to use it sparingly to avoid overpowering the dish, and store it properly to ensure that it retains its delicate flavor and aroma.

Complementary Flavor Profiles

Some of the most popular flavors that complement saffron are:

  1. Spices: Pairs well with other spices like cumin, coriander, and cardamom.

  1. Savory: For savory notes garlic and white wine work well with it.
kesar pista kulfi
  1. Nuts:  Paired with a variety of nuts, including almonds, pistachios, and cashews, to add a unique flavor.  

The combination of saffron and pistachio is a well-known Indian flavor combo.  Used to make Kesar (saffron) Pista (pistachio) Ice Cream and Kesar Pista Kulfi.

  1. Citrus: Pairs well with citrus flavors like lemon and orange, which can help to balance its slightly bitter taste.

  1. Honey: It can be with honey to create a sweet and aromatic flavor that is popular in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine.

I once placed crushed strands in a bottle jar to make saffron honey at home! It was delicious.

Saffron honey chaat masala.

Traditional Dishes

Spanish: Used in paella, a rice dish that also features seafood, chicken, and vegetables.

Indian: Used in many dishes, including biryani, a rice dish that is often made with meat or vegetables. The saffron adds a sweet and slightly floral flavor and is often paired with other spices like cumin and cardamom.

Persian: Used in a variety of dishes, including the popular rice dish called chelow. 

Desserts

It can be used in a variety of sweet dishes and desserts.

Indian: An ingredient in desserts like kheer, a rice pudding.  Kesar Peda and Kesar Pista Milk Cake are two other popular ones! I’ve also used it to make saffron frosting for cupcakes.

Italian:  Used in panettone, a sweet bread that also uses dried fruit.  

FAQs

What does saffron do to food?

Saffron provides flavor and color when added to food. When given time to bloom, it produces a beautiful yellow-gold color and infused the dish with a subtle floral, warm, sweet taste with notes of bitter.

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