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Getting the Most out of Saffron

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2013

Can saffron’s flavor be intensified by toasting it in a foil packet?

We’ve found that many spices benefit from toasting before use because heat intensifies their flavor, so we thought it would also work for saffron, although we questioned whether the foil was necessary.

We tried toasting ¼-teaspoon samples of saffron in a hot skillet for 30 seconds, both dry and tightly wrapped in foil. We then made risotto and aïoli with both and compared them with samples made with untreated saffron. The outcome? The foil-wrapped saffron had the most flavor, while the dry-toasted saffron had the least.

Our science editor explained how saffron is different from other spices: The molecule primarily responsible for its aroma, safranal, is highly volatile in the presence of both oxygen and heat. But heat doesn’t just cause safranal to evaporate; at the same time (and at a slightly faster rate), it converts another compound called picrocrocin into safranal. When saffron is heated in a closed foil packet, where it’s protected from exposure to air, its flavor is enhanced—and preserved.

BOTTOM LINE: Toasting does intensify saffron’s flavor—as long as it’s kept tightly wrapped during the process.