Commercial growers just might want to take a good look at saffron. Kaitlin Aasen, a greenhouse grower for Cornell’s Agricultural Experiment Station, said that the potential for profit makes the spice a spectacular prospect.

Saffron is from the plant Crocus sativus, an autumn-blooming crocus. It is a perennial and it lasts about three to five years in a production setting. In a home gardener setting, it can last a bit longer.

“Why saffron?” asked Aasen. “We grow saffron because it is a cash crop. It’s the most expensive spice in the world. In a production setting, this could be a really nice boost for small farmers or someone who’s doing a large production.”

It is commonly used in dishes using Spanish rice, such as paella. A number of breads, pies and soups use saffron in them. In some parts of the world, it’s also used medicinally and as a component of perfumes. Current research is investigating the possibility that the spice has antidepressant qualities. Saffron has also been utilized in industrial coloring, dyeing linens, yarns and other textiles.

Asked why it is so expensive, Aasen said that it’s due to the process of cultivating. Saffron is very labor intensive. “Saffron has always been hand harvested and processed. Nothing has really changed about this over the years. It’s a very delicate flower and it needs to be carefully hand separated. It’s very meticulous work.

“You’re out in the field on your knees, squatting, crawling around, picking the flowers by hand, filling your basket, dumping the baskets, then processing. In some countries, they just get all the flowers, set them out on the table, and families get together and the separation process together.”

She noted that 80% of the weight of the final product is lost due to dehydration and moisture loss, which consequently drives up its cost. One pound of saffron can fetch as much as $5,000.

To make the most out of a saffron crop, it’s important to get the growing conditions right. “The soil that you’re going to want to plant saffron in is going to be a very well-draining soil because it is a corm and they will rot. They do not like wet feet!” Aasen emphasized.

A family can work together around the table to harvest the delicate saffron. Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Aasen

The plant thrives when exposed fully to the sun. “I’ve noticed that on the rainy, cloudy days or in a shady portion of my yard, they don’t tend to flower very well, or they only flower a couple times,” she added. “They definitely have a higher yield with better sun exposure.”

The plants need to be exposed to temperatures below 75º in order to break dormancy. “You want to plant when they’re dormant, which is going to be between July and September. The reason you do this is because when they’re flowering, you don’t want to mess with them too much,” she explained. “Obviously, you don’t want to dig them up when they’re flowering. You don’t want to disturb them outside of July through September, basically.”

It’s important to harvest the flowers when they’re dry. Harvesting the flowers when they’re wet risks the saffron bleeding out of the threads. “It will get messy. It’ll decrease the quality of the saffron that you’re harvesting,” said Aasen. “Look for flowers that are either open or they’re just starting to open. You can start harvesting at that point.”

Separation and processing of the saffron should start immediately after harvesting, or at the very least not longer than 24 hours afterwards. “It’s a very delicate flower. Use your hands or forceps to basically break about the base of the flower. If it’s open, you can just reach your forceps inside and pinch off the threads at the base.”

Aasen recommended that when pinching the saffron threads to make sure that you do it before dehydrating.

When dehydrating, lay the saffron out on trays to dry. Other methods, such as baking in an oven or using a dehydrator, can also be used. “You just want to be careful because they do get really hot. You want to keep it at a temperature of about 170º. My dehydrator goes to 165º. I’ve been doing it in mine for about 25 minutes, and that seems to be just fine.”

She added that the best quality saffron is produced at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time. When air-drying, keep in mind it’ll take a couple days in an area of low humidity. “Then as you’re dehydrating and drying, you want to check periodically. I check every 10 minutes to see if it’s at a snapping point. Basically, you’re just going to pick up a thread to see if it can break easily. If it bends, it’s not ready yet.”

The saffron can be safely stored in jars without fear of mold when it reaches a moisture level below 12%.

Aasen said that after being stored for about a month, the saffron will be ready to be used. “Basically, after harvesting, you keep it in that air-tight jar that you open every now and then to check. But give it about a month and you’ll have the peak aroma and flavor,” she said.

by Enrico Villamaino