What Is Saffron and Why Is It So Expensive?

With its gorgeous color and distinct flavor, this ancient spice is worth the price tag.

Saffron is often referred to as “red gold,” and for good reason—it’s the world’s most expensive spice, retailing for anywhere from $10 to $20 for a gram of the real stuff. With a subtly sweet, hard-to-pin-down flavor, it also serves as a natural food dye and is the key to unlocking the brilliant golden color of classic dishes such as bouillabaisse, paella, and risotto alla Milanese. But what exactly is saffron, and why is it so expensive? Here, learn all about the precious spice, including where it comes from, how to cook with it, and how to tell the real deal from impostors.

What Is Saffron?

Believed to have first been discovered in Bronze Age Greece, saffron has been cultivated for thousands of years for use as a spice, dye and medicine. Saffron comes from the stigmas of crocus sativus, a flowering plant in the iris family with bright purple petals that’s also known as “saffron crocus” or “autumn crocus.” Each flower only produces a few of the prized, crimson-red stigmas (commonly referred to as threads), which are hand-picked and then dried. Native to southwest Asia, the flowers are somewhat temperamental and prefer a dry, semi-arid climate. Today, Iran is the world’s leading producer of saffron, but the spice is also cultivated in Afghanistan, Greece, Morocco, India, and Spain, among other countries.

Saffron Threads
Saffron is the world's most expensive spice. PHOTO: bhofack2/GETTY IMAGES.

Why Is Saffron So Expensive?

So what makes saffron so pricey? To put it plainly, it’s an incredibly labor-intensive crop to harvest. Each saffron flower only produces three threads, so it can take thousands of flowers to get just one ounce of saffron. The whisper-thin threads are also incredibly delicate, so they must be carefully harvested by hand, and only very early in the morning to avoid risking damage from the sun.

Saffron Flowers

Owen Franken/ GETTY IMAGES

“When you get these sticks or threads out of the flower itself, it's all laborious,” says Mohammad Salehi, the owner of Heray Spice, a Chicago-based company that sources hand-harvested saffron from a cooperative of family farmers in the Herat province of Afghanistan. “You have to get up very early in the morning before sunrise to collect them—by 7 a.m., the saffron should be at your processing facility, otherwise the sun will ruin it. You have to pick the flowers with one hand and then use your fingers on the other hand to pick each thread out of the flower, and then you have to leave the threads in the sun to dry. There’s no machine; it’s hand-harvested. Let’s say one person works full-time in a day—chances are he is not going to be able to get more than one gram of saffron.”

Saffron also has an incredibly short harvest window. Crocus sativus is a fall-flowering plant, only blooming for two or three weeks out of the year. Saffron is typically harvested in late October into November, depending on the location.

How to Tell Real From Fake Saffron

Because of its notoriously high price tag, fake versions of saffron abound. To cut down on costs, some unscrupulous producers will mix a small amount of true saffron with fillers such as safflower, a plant commonly cultivated for cooking oil, or corn silk threads that are dyed red with food coloring, and market the product as saffron.

So, how can you tell real saffron apart from the impostors?

  1.  Price: Real saffron is expensive to produce, plain and simple. Expect to spend at least $10 for one gram and be discerning of anything much cheaper. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Smell: Authentic saffron has a beautiful floral, honeyed aroma. Because of the additives, fake saffron can produce a metallic or tobacco-like smell over time.
  3.  Color: Saffron threads are dark red with sometimes a bit of yellow, so be wary if you see too much yellow or even white. Salehi says the best way to know for sure is to do a water test by placing a pinch of your saffron in very hot water. If the saffron loses its color quickly, with the threads turning white or the water immediately turning red, that’s a sign that you might not have the real deal. True saffron will take three to five minutes—sometimes up to 10—to open up and dye the water yellow, and the threads themselves will keep their red color.

How to Use Saffron

Don’t be dissuaded by the price tag—a little bit of saffron goes a long way. You typically only need a teaspoon or less to add deep flavor and color to all kinds of dishes. Saffron’s complex flavor is difficult to pinpoint—it’s at once bright, sweet, floral and slightly earthy. Salehi describes it as a honeyed sweetness, with notes of dried flowers or fresh hay. Make sure to buy saffron threads over ground saffron (which often mixes in other spices like paprika or turmeric), and store your saffron in an airtight glass container in a cool, dark place. If you’re not going to use it all right away, you can also stick it in the freezer to extend its shelf life.

When ready to use, Salehi recommends grinding a pinch of the threads with salt in a mortar and pestle until you have a fine powder. While you can certainly sprinkle this freshly ground saffron directly into your dish, it’s best to let it bloom to truly bring out the flavor and aroma. To do so, transfer the ground saffron to a small bowl, add about 3 tablespoons of warm water or broth, stir together and let it steep for 5 to 10 minutes.

Our Favorite Recipes Using Saffron

Saffron is a natural match for rice, whether in classic Italian risotto or tahdig, a traditional Persian rice dish with a crispy, caramelized crust. Just ¼ teaspoon of saffron threads add rich color and flavor to this Weeknight Paella or classic French Bouillabaisse. Saffron is commonly paired with chicken, like in this Moroccan Chicken and Squash Tagine, but it also works well with seafood and lamb. You can add it to your favorite curry recipe or toss it with fresh zucchini for this light yet filling Noodles and "Zoodles" with Saffron And Cream. With its uniquely sweet flavor, saffron also naturally shines in desserts. Try incorporating it into the dough of this Rustic Pear Tart with Saffron Pastry or folding it into ice cream or cake batter.

 

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