Demystifying Saffron: Mark Bittman Explains The Pricey Spice

Aug 16, 2013
Originally published on August 16, 2013 3:25 pm

In the latest installment of NPR's Cook Your Cupboard, New York Times columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman sheds a little light on saffron — a spice that has been stumping Lennet Radke in Wisconsin. Radke, who received a little jar in a contest, says she's never really used it. The stuff isn't cheap. And that knowledge alone can stifle experimentation.

Bittman concedes that it's exotic and expensive. But also, he says, "it should be used."

So what is it? The stringy red spice is actually the dried stigma of a saffron flower. It has a distinct flavor — and turns dishes a distinctly rich, yellow color. (For that reason, it's also used as a dye.)

Saffron is most famously used in Bouillabaisse (a French fish stew), but Bittman says there are some really basic things you can do with it. "The simplest thing to do with saffron is just make rice," he says.

He's not really one for recipes, but instead offers a few basic methods:

  • Sautee some onions, add some rice, and cook the rice in the oil or butter until glossy. Then add a pinch of saffron and the rice will turn a beautiful golden color. (Do this to make any kind of risotto, pilaf, paella or couscous.)
  • Take a lot of olive oil and add slivered garlic, smoked paprika and some saffron. Cook shrimp in the spicy oil. Dip bread in the excess oil.
  • Steam mussels with a little bit of white wine, garlic herbs and a pinch of saffron.

Bittman also offers a few tips about cardamom. It's on the sweeter side of the spice spectrum and, he says, "turns something quite ordinary into something special."

  • Throw the pods into something like rice or stew.
  • Add a small amount of powdered cardamom to coffee.
  • Add a pinch of it to a tomato sauce or a rice pudding.
  • Sprinkle a bit on French toast — or regular toast.
  • Try adding a bit to oatmeal with some nuts and orange zest.
  • Sautee some chopped fruit (apples, pears or both — maybe even bananas) gently in butter until they brown a little bit and sprinkle with cardamom.

We've got a new round of Cook Your Cupboard going: Freezer Finds. Don't toss those forgotten frozen peas! Keep your cool and get summer dish ideas by asking the community!

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And we're going to listen in now, on a phone call between a food writer and one lucky listener as Renee Montagne brings us Cook Your Cupboard.


RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: That's our new food project where you submit photos of food in your kitchen you're not sure how to cook up and we provide a famous chef or food writer to offer advice. This morning Mark Bittman, whose books include "How to Cook Everything" and, most recently, "Eat Vegan Before Six." Good morning.

MARK BITTMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And the submission we chose for our spice round was sent in by Lennet Radke, who's on the line from her office in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Good morning to you.

LENNET RADKE: Good morning, Renee and Mark.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to the spice that you submitted - saffron.


MONTAGNE: And first of all, how'd you end up with a jar of saffron that you're not absolutely sure what to do with?

RADKE: Well, we won this wonderful vegetarian starter kit on a silent auction, and in the bottom is this small bottle of saffron. Which I pulled out and thought, well, I'll put that on my culinary bucket list, because I have absolutely no idea what to do with this.

MONTAGNE: And Mark Bittman, this is where you come in.

BITTMAN: It is different. It's exotic. And it should be used. I mean, it's expensive but it's not precious and it's actually really, really easy to use. And the simplest thing to do with saffron is just sauté some onions and then add some rice and cook the rice in the oil or butter, whatever you're using, until it's glossy. And then take a pinch of saffron, just stir it in there, and the rice will turn this amazing golden color, really, really deep and beautiful yellow.

And then put quarters or eighths of good tomatoes on top and just put that in the oven and let that bake until it's a little bit crusty on the top and the bottom and you have this beautiful yellow rice with the bright red tomatoes. That's a, sort of, a favorite of mine.

RADKE: Is it ever too late to throw the saffron in a dish?

BITTMAN: Well, it's not a garnish. You know, the threads themselves are not pleasant to eat and you're not going to get them infused deeply into the dish. I think better at the beginning than at the end.


MONTAGNE: Lennet, you also had a question about cardamom.

RADKE: Cardamom is a spice that I bought for one recipe. How do you bake with it? But how also might you put it, instead of something sweet, something savory?

BITTMAN: It's a very funny spice and it comes in maybe nine different forms.


BITTMAN: Because it can be green, it can be white, it can be black. You can get these big pods. Inside the pods are seeds. So you can throw the pods themselves into things like rices and stews, and you can even chew on those pods. They're pretty good. The seeds are better ground or even chopped up.

You know, you can use a pinch of the powder, even in coffee, to make it...

RADKE: Really?

BITTMAN: ...quite different. A pinch of it in a tomato sauce. I mean, it turns something quite ordinary into something really special.

RADKE: Yeah. Good tip. Thanks.

BITTMAN: One other, actually, is sauté some cut up apples or pears or both. Cook really gently in butter until they brown a little bit and sprinkle some sugar and cardamom on that.

RADKE: Mm-hmm.

BITTMAN: And, again, a tiny, tiny bit of cardamom. No one will know what you did. And it'll be really good.


BITTMAN: I'm going to do that tonight, actually.

RADKE: That sounds really good.

MONTAGNE: I'm going to do that too.


RADKE: Great. All right.

BITTMAN: Well, we should check back in, in that case.

RADKE: I was just going to say all right, let's see how it goes.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both.

RADKE: Thank you. It's been delightful. Thank you, Mark.

BITTMAN: Thanks, Lennet. Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's Mark Bittman, whose new New York Times column is "The Flexitarian." And our guest is Lennet Radke. She joined us from Marshfield Wisconsin.

GREENE: Our latest round for Cook Your Cupboard is freezer finds. And you can submit your find at This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm David Greene.

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