Harvesting & storing saffron


I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

Among spices, saffron is unique. How do you harvest and store the fine, spicy pistils of this crocus species correctly? Find out all about harvesting here.

Saffron being harvested by hand
The saffron threads are harvested by hand [Photo: Gts/ Shutterstock.com]

The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) blooms late in the year, beginning in October. At the same time or as soon as September, the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) flowers, and can be found wild in many meadows, sparse forests and also in gardens. The two look very similar, but the latter is extremely poisonous and can cause death if any part of the plant is eaten.

How to distinguish the saffron crocus and autumn crocus? Initially, both flowers are purple and have six petals each. However, there are two distinctive features: The leaves and the stigmas. Autumn crocus blooms in the autumn without any green foliage at all, while saffron crocus forms its chive-like leaves in the autumn just before flowering. The second major difference is the size and colour of the stigma, i.e. the female reproductive organs. In the saffron crocus, these are very large, long and deep orange to reddish in colour. The autumn crocus, on the other hand, has comparatively inconspicuous, shorter white stigmas with a yellow pistil. If you pay attention to these two features, it is almost impossible to confuse the expensive spice crocus with the poisonous double. By the way, you can find more exciting facts and tips on dealing with autumn crocuses in our special article.

In the following paragraphs we will now explain step by step how to harvest, dry and properly store saffron.

Harvesting saffron: when and how

Only the long red stigmas are removed from the flower of the saffron crocus. The smoky, spicy and earthy aroma of saffron can only be found in these flower organs. Harvesting saffron is pure manual labour. To obtain 1 kg of finished spice, up to 150,000 flower stigmas have to be collected, separated from the pistil and then dried. However, in each flower there are only three of the precious threads. The labour-intensive and land-intensive cultivation makes saffron the most expensive spice in the world.

The harvest season of saffron lasts for just three weeks in October. The orange threads lose colour and flavour due to excessive exposure to sunlight during harvest. Therefore, it is best to harvest on non-rainy days in the morning hours.

Separating the red pistil filaments from the rest of the flower is also called thinning out. If you would like to harvest saffron yourself, we recommend using tweezers or, with a little sensitivity, your bare hands to pick the threads from the saffron flower. The spicy stigmas can be removed directly, leaving the rest of the flower ornamental. However, you can also collect the entire flower and harvest the saffron threads in another step. Picking saffron flower as a whole is faster. This way, you do not have to work in the bent-over position for too long. After all, saffron only grows 10-15 cm high. This means it is not particularly back-friendly work.

The foliage of saffron is left in the cold season and does not dry up until the next spring. This means the tuber can still collect reserve materials for the next shoots over the winter.

Saffron in a glass vile
Saffron needs airtight storage and protection from moisture [Photo: Swapan Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Storing saffron

The delicate scars barely last a day and drying the saffron is the only way to increase its shelf life. On a baking sheet or something similar, spread out the threads and let them dry in the warm, but not in direct sunlight. Saffron dries very quickly, after about an hour, the precious spice can then be stored. Gentle post-drying in the oven at a maximum of 40 °C for 15 to 30 minutes can help with cool outside temperatures.

It is essential to enclose the saffron threads in an airtight container to protect them from atmospheric moisture. Dark tinted, aroma preserving jars that also keep moisture out are ideal for storing saffron. The expensive spice is best stored as a whole in the form of the typical threads. This means there is no risk of confusing saffron in the form of ground up powder with the powder of turmeric (Curcuma longa).

In fact, fake saffron powder is by no means rare on the market, as it is an extremely lucrative business for fraudsters. So when buying, also make sure to purchase the saffron in its original form as stylus threads. Saffron has a shelf life of at least three years after harvesting and, under good storage conditions, loses hardly any of its aromatic substances or colour intensity.

Since the Middle Ages, the most expensive of all spices was considered a status symbol of the rich. Did you know that, with a little luck and in suitable locations, you can grow saffron even at our latitudes? In our article you will find tips on the location, planting and care of saffron crocus.

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