Making the Most of Saffron | Cook's Illustrated
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Making the Most of Saffron

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2009

When dealing with the most expensive spice in the world, it's important to get the most for your money.

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices on the market; one ounce can fetch upward of $150. To that end, we wondered if there are other, more cost-effective ways to extract maximum flavor from pricey threads of saffron, rather than simply crumbling them directly into your dish.

THE EXPERIMENT

We made three batches of rouille, a garlicky, saffron-accented sauce that gets stirred into our Chicken Bouillabaisse recipe, three ways:

Batch 1: All ingredients (saffron, bread crumbs, water, lemon juice, mustard, egg yolk, cayenne pepper, garlic, and oil) combined and rested overnight.

Batch 2: Saffron steeped in 3 tablespoons hot water for 5 minutes before being added to remaining ingredients.

Batch 3: Saffron and remaining ingredients simply stirred together.

THE RESULTS

Batch 3 had a pale yellow color that matched its muted saffron flavor, while both the rested and the steeped batches boasted a deep orange-yellow color and markedly stronger saffron flavor.

THE EXPLANATION

Saffron’s flavor compounds are soluble in water, which means it needs the presence of liquid to realize its full aromatic potential. In a rouille, most of the water molecules (from the added water as well as lemon juice and egg yolks) are bound in an emulsion, slowing down the time it takes for the flavor compounds to dissolve fully. Resting the sauce overnight allows this to happen—but steeping the saffron in hot water first achieves the same goal more efficiently. Molecules move faster in hot water than in room-temperature liquid, so they bump into the saffron with greater frequency and force, pulling the soluble flavor compounds into the solution more quickly.