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What Gives Paella Its Unique Color and Flavor?

Bowl of saffron threads.

Paella is known to be a great dish to have anytime of the year. Its unique flavors and various recipes make it perfect for all types of taste buds and diets. After all, you could make a seafood paella, chicken paella, vegan or vegetarian paella, and even a sausage recipe. Depending on your dietary needs or simply how you are feeling that day, you could make a paella recipe to match the mood. No matter what recipe, your paella will most likely turn out a golden or reddish color. But why is that, and what gives paella that unique flavor that comes through all the different recipes? Well, the answer is a lesser known and expensive spice known as saffron!

Unless you are cooking a lot of food or from a culture where recipes include saffron more often, then you will probably have little to no experience with the spice. It is only grown in specific parts of the world and is known for being awfully expensive to produce. The plant that produces the spice is known as crocus sativus. The part of the plant that makes the spice saffron is only the small threads that form inside the flower. You can imagine it as the same filaments that you would see inside a brightly colored orchid. In many plants, including crocus sativus, flowers only produce a fraction of a gram of filaments. That means it could take weeks to harvest a tiny amount of saffron.

What is Saffron?

Saffron is a spice grown in specific regions of the world, like Kashmir in India. It is often regarded as one of the most precious spices in the world. Besides each plant only producing a small amount of saffron, it is also because of the issue of harvesting. Saffron must be handled by hand, unlike other plants where the edible or spice part is easily separated and harvested mechanically. This means not only is it a lot of work to grow large amounts of saffron, but it also takes a lot of labour and physical labor to care for and harvest them. The average price of saffron can range from a couple hundred all the way to some thousands of US dollar for only a pound! Most recipes only call for a small amount of saffron, so it is not as expensive as it might first seem.

However, the demand for saffron is still high, leading to it being one of the most expensive spices around. If you are looking to get some saffron and use it in your cooking, just remember that a small amount goes a long way. Luckily, the spice is very potent, so even a gram can spread throughout an entire paella dish. The color of the spice also is pulled out from the filaments as they cook. They then mix with the paella rice to create that unique golden yellowish color. If your dish comes out more red than yellow, then you may have used fake saffron or saffron scraps with added flavors to mimic real saffron. Real saffron will turn white rice a nice golden yellow color.

Types of Saffron

Natural saffron field.

Not all saffron contains the same properties. Certain types may be better at imbuing recipes with its color, while others may pack more flavor. Typically, the quality of your saffron will depend on where it was grown. Different environments and growing techniques mean different results. The differences are just like how you could try two of the same type of apple from different farms and get differing flavor profiles.

When looking up saffron online, keep a lookout for where it was grown and harvested. For example, Persian saffron is regarded as some of the best and usually preferred when cooking. If you are curious as to the exact quality of your saffron, you will want to look for concentrations of the three main compounds in the spice. Just like how capsaicin content in peppers lets researchers know exactly how hot a sauce will be, the safranal, crocin, and picrocrocin levels.

Saffron Quality

To gauge the quality of saffron, it is easier to compare the amounts of safranal, crocin, and picrocrocin, but it is not always possible. The easiest way to gauge quality is to ensure the saffron is from a reputable farm and has certain flavors, smells, and color characteristics of good saffron. The spice should be nice and brightly colored and have a powerful aroma. Lightly colored saffron that does not have a strong smell is probably lacking in one or more of the three main compounds. So, what are the standards for outstanding quality saffron? Well, category 1 saffron is typically verifiable high-quality spice. Category 1 levels of safranal align with the international average range. That means good verifiable saffron has a good chance of containing the right amount of safranal. There are other ways of measuring the quality of your saffron that does not require having detailed analysis information.

Some common ways to testing saffron besides taste and visible color is by tasting, rubbing, and testing in cold water. These three ways are things you can do from the comfort of your own home. For a taste test, simply use a small bit of saffron. It should taste bitter, but not sweet. You can test it by rubbing it between your fingers also to release the aroma. It should smell slightly sweet. The last test is the cold-water test. By mixing some saffron with cold water, you can release some of the color into the water. Like when you cook it in rice, the water should turn a golden yellow color.

Where to Buy Authentic Saffron

White rice made with saffron yellow color rice Machika. Real saffron rice.

Despite being expensive and difficult to harvest, saffron is easily accessible through online sellers and at your local supermarket chain. The only thing to watch out for are fake saffron products. For example, some companies may sell products labeled as saffron that are actually other parts of the flower that do not contain the same properties. These more yellow-colored strands are missing the same flavor, aroma, or color. Sellers may get past this by using artificial or natural flavoring. The best way to ensure you are getting real saffron is to make sure it looks real and that the sellers have adequate information online. Many authentic sellers provide detailed information on their website like source of the saffron and quality analysis.

Shop for Paella Pans and More at Machika

If you are looking to cook with saffron, then paella is a great place to start. Paella is a simple pan meal that uses saffron to give the rice a unique color and gives the dish an unforgettable taste. At Machika, we offer the best authentic paella pans made in Spain. You can choose between enameled paella pans and polished steel paella pans to fit your needs. Get started cooking with saffron today by getting a paella pan from Machika today.

Maria Perez machika author blurb Paella, paella pans, kitchenware, cookware, recipes, and more.

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