In Italy, saffron's been growing at least since the Middle Ages, but there are still relatively few recipes with it. Its best use (and most famous) is undoubtedly in a classic Risotto alla Milanese, a creamy, satisfying dish of rice cooked with onion, bone marrow, stock, and saffron. It's either served on its own (the bone marrow and stock and butter and Parmesan added at the end render it quite a rich, stand-alone dish) or with osso buco.
It may seem odd something that has been cultivated in these parts (particularly in Abruzzo, Sardinia, and San Gimignano, Tuscany) for so long has so few culinary traditions. However, it's also important to know saffron wasn't used for food in the Middle Ages. It was a color, used to dye textiles a bright, beautiful gold and ground into pigments for paint. The closest saffron came to being cooked was in liqueurs, tonics, and as medicine (apparently saffron is an excellent anti-inflammatory and even handy for soothing teething babies).
Today, you can find it in ricotta pasta or giving creamy potato soup a golden hue. But risotto alla milanese is, without a doubt, the favorite saffron-tinged dish. Some say it's a descendant of Spain's paella, brought to northern Italy in 1535 when Spanish rule took over for almost two centuries and saffron from Spain made its way into noble kitchens.
You need about 200 flowers—pretty, purple crocus (crocus sativus), that each hold three scarlet red stigmas (which are the saffron)—to produce just 1 gram of fresh saffron. The saffron then has to be completely dried to be used, so you actually need about double the amount of fresh saffron to make 1 gram of dry saffron. That's roughly 400 flowers—all hand-picked! Just a pinch of saffron strands (about 0.1 grams) is enough to make risotto for 4 to 6 servings.
Risotto alla milanese is so simple there are rarely variations on it other than the combination of liquids involved: white wine and stock, just stock, or marsala in place of the wine (in this case, no bone marrow, as it becomes too rich). This being said, there are differences from recipe-to-recipe about where and how to add the saffron.
Elizabeth David in Italian Food, first published in 1954, adds the saffron (which is pounded in a mortar to a powder and then steeped in a coffee cup of hot broth for 5 minutes) at the very end of cooking.
In a 1981 recipe from the New York Times—courtesy of Gianni Minale's late-and-great Alfredo's restaurant in New York City, where the dish was made to order and cooked directly at the table in a copper pan—the saffron is not steeped but added with the wine, the first liquid to touch the rice, so that it cooks and infuses with the entire dish from the beginning.
Marcella Hazan in The Classic Italian Cookbook calls for steeping the saffron for 15 minutes in a large batch (1 1/2 cups) of warmed stock that's added halfway through cooking the rice, noting, “Herbs that call too much attention to themselves are a rude intrusion upon the general harmony of a dish, but if you like a stronger saffron presence wait another 5 to 8 minutes before adding the diluted saffron. But be careful it doesn't upstage your risotto.”
The verdict? Steep the saffron like Elizabeth David, but listen to Marcella Hazan's advice and add it halfway through.
- 1 pinch dried saffron threads
- 8 cups (2 litres) warmed stock (unsalted vegetable, chicken or beef)
- 1/3 cup (80 grams) butter
- 2 1/2 tablespoons bone marrow (optional)
- 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 pound (450 grams) arborio rice (or carnaroli or vialone nano rice)
- 2/3 cup (150 ml) dry white wine
- 1 handful (about 50 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
Have you made risotto alla milanese before? Let us know in the comments!