Stovetop: Basic Indian Saffron Rice

May 17, 2024

Stovetop: Basic Indian Saffron Rice

Imagine - the beautiful, yellow hue above started with a few pinches of bright red wispy threads. Strands of fiery color against a vast backdrop of majestic, bright purple petal fields is how delicate saffron starts. The exorbitantly-priced, beautiful threads are the stigma of a flowering plant in the iris family. Each flower produces only a few strands, which are carefully hand-picked in the early morning and dried. Harvesting takes place before the sun has a chance to do any heat damage albeit unintentional. This curated process and the limited supply is why saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, often referred to as 'red gold'. It's used to lavishly flavor rice dishes in many cuisines including Italian (risotto), Spanish (paella), and Indian (pulao and biryani). It's that taste that you just can't put your finger on - at once musky and earthy with sweet notes of well, I'm not quite sure. Because that's how I always walk away feeling after eating something spiced with saffron. It's amazing and delicious - but I just cannot tell you exactly why. Add saffron to your cooking and you'll immediately take basic, simple dishes to another level entirely. The best way to get the most of this delicate spice is to take just a few pinches, tap them into powder in a mortar and pestle, and add to warm milk. Let it sit for about 30 minutes until the beautiful, yellowish-orange hue has a chance to imbue the milk. Then, add this to your rice. Below, find my most basic recipe with tips on how to elevate even further with nuts and caramelized onion. 

3 generous pinches saffron
1/4 cup milk or alternative, slightly warmed 
1 1/2 cups white basmati rice, washed
2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon kala jeera or black cumin seed* (sub cumin seed)
1 1/2-inch cinnamon stick
4 green cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
6 black cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 cups water, for cooking

1. Gently tap against the saffron strands in a mortar and pestle until powdered.  I use a small brush to get every last bit of my saffron powder out of the mortar and pestle. Add to the warmed milk and let it sit for about 30 minutes. Soak the rice in room temperature water and let this also sit for 30 minutes.

2. In a heavy, roomy pot, add the ghee and warm over medium-high heat. Add the black cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, and cloves. Stir and cook for 2 minutes. *black cumin seed is not actually cumin, but nigella and also called black seed. I use it here because the taste profile is slightly more delicate that regular cumin. If you don't have it, simply substitute cumin seeds. Not to worry, I'll have a post later talking about the differences. 

3. Move the pot to a side burner to take it off the heat and add the drained rice. I use a slotted spoon to make sure to get rid of all of this soaking water. Stir gently until all of the rice is coated and glistening with the ghee or oil. Place the pot back on the heat, add the salt, and stir until the rice turns a touch whitish-opaque. Be careful not to over stir - otherwise the rice can and will get mushy. 

4. Add the cooking water and stir. Once the contents come to a boil, turn the heat down, place a lid on the pot slightly ajar and simmer for about 6 minutes until the rice is just about done and the moisture is almost gone. 

5. Turn the heat off, but leave the pot on the same burner for the residual heat. Add the saffron-milk mixture to the rice, cover the pot completely with the lid, and let it sit for 3 minutes. 

6. Very gently stir the rice until the beautiful saffron hue coats all of the rice evenly. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cardamom pods, and cloves, or leave them in for flavor and eat around them. The other spices are edible. Serve warm with an Indian dish or on its own with a side of spiced yogurt. 

Pro-Tip. To elevate, saute sliced yellow onions until brown and slightly caramelized and then saute raw nuts like cashew halves, slivered almonds, and pistachios. Add this to your rice either at the end or in step 5 along with the saffron mixture. 

BACKSTORY. When I started researching recipes for Indian saffron rice I realized they used nuts and onions. While I loved the results, for my family I preferred to make a simpler version to eat daily that I could then dress up if I wanted later. I also found that soaking the rice meant I needed to cut back on the cooking water. Many recipes used a full 1 cup rice to 2 cups water ratio even after soaking the rice and this made for a slightly mushy dish, which did not sit well with me. Basmati rice should be loose and fall apart when you are eating it. I also tried making this dish with 2 cups of rice to give you a more clear and easy measurement, but found that the rice-saffron balance was off. Yes, you can use more saffron, but the sweet spot seemed to be the recipe above. Give it a try and see what you think. But, if you do increase the amount of rice then you'll want to add a touch more saffron. Otherwise not every rice kernel will get coated with the saffron hue and the color at the end won't be beautifully even. I also noticed that other recipes included a pinch of mace. I didn't notice too much of a difference leaving it out - but I do include it when I make biryani. Up to you - not everyone's spice cabinet includes mace. 

Below, you can see how the saffron color slowly seeps into the rice. On the right is what you get after you stir the rice together and then smooth it back down with the back of a spatula. You can serve it right out of the pot or transfer it to a beautiful bowl. 

Who wants to explore India's spice and food scene with me? Sign up now for my first tour going to North India - February 10 - 21, 2025. Spots are limited. Sign up today! Click here to learn more. 

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