Stories / Recipes

The Spice You Need to Up Your Risotto Game

James Beard on saffron

James Beard

February 03, 2020


Risotto Milanese Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim
Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to a survey of saffron, the world's most sought-after spice, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: The World's Most Precious Seasoning

I have always been fascinated by the lore of spices, those mysterious and magical seasonings that have been an important part of our culinary practices for centuries. I have written about some of the more familiar—cinnamon and cloves, nutmeg and paprika. Now I’m going to discuss a spice that some of you may not know as well—saffron, which according to an old herbal quoted by the great English food writer Elizabeth David, is a “useful aromatic of a strong, penetrating smell and a warm, pungent, bitterish taste.” Saffron is one of the most ancient and esteemed of all spices. Those wily traders, the Phoenicians, introduced it to the south of France and to England, where it still persists after hundreds of years in the saffron buns of Cornwall and old place names like Saffron Walden.

As a flavoring, a dye, and a medicine, saffron was highly prized in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and even today it ranks as the costliest spice in the world. The minuscule vivid red threads are actually the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus, a fall-blooming purple crocus that is cultivated in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and it takes 75,000 flowers, picked by hand, to yield one pound of saffron. One of those little tins you buy for 65 cents contains only about eight-tenths of a gram of saffron, about a teaspoon. It would take 35 of these boxes to make just one ounce, which works out to around $364 a pound. However, to quote Elizabeth David again, “One grain or 1/437th of an ounce of these tiny fiery orange and red threadlike objects scarcely fills the smallest salt spoon, but provides flavoring and coloring for such a thing as a paella or a risotto or a bouillabaisse for four to six people.” So, you see, a very little goes a long way.

Saffron occurs in the cuisines of Spain, Italy, southern France, Iran, and India and, oddly enough, in that of our own Pennsylvania Dutch country. How it became a part of that thrifty Germanic farmhouse cooking is rather an interesting story. In 1734 it was brought over by the Schwenkfelders, a group of Silesians, some of whom owned saffron warehouses in Holland. To this day, you’ll find a recipe for their traditional wedding cake, colored and flavored with a goodly amount of saffron, in Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks, and my friend Betty Groff, who lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, can recall the days when people there had their own saffron beds.

The saffron sold in stores and supermarkets is mostly imported from Spain and comes in tiny packets or glass vials, or boxes that look like aspirin tins. For best results, buy the threads, which have the true, intense saffron color and flavor. There’s a powdered form of saffron with a lot of color but little strength, and in Spanish groceries you may see something called “paella seasoning,” which doesn’t taste much of saffron either.

Always use saffron with discretion. A mere pinch lends an unbelievably delicious quality to such rice dishes as the paella and arroz con pollo of Spain, Iranian polo, Indian biryani, and the classic Risotto alla Milanese of Italy.

In Italy, risotto alla Milanese is usually offered as a first course, or with certain meats such as osso buco—braised veal shank. I like to serve it as a main course for luncheon or supper, with a rather hearty salad of mixed greens and onion with a hint of garlic in the dressing, and a white Italian wine, followed by a simple dessert of fresh fruit.

Get James Beard's recipe for Risotto alla Milanese.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.