Saffron 101: A Look Into the World’s Most Expensive Spice

Turn risotto and ice cream into gold with this prized ingredient.

<p>bhofack2 / Getty Images</p>

bhofack2 / Getty Images

Saffron conjures the allure of rich, golden risottos such as Risotto alla Milanese and dessert recipes such as Bastani Irani (Rosewater-and-Saffron Ice Cream). But what exactly is saffron? And why is one ounce of this spice — plucked from the heart of a small field flower at a specific moment in its life cycle — worth more than gold?

What is saffron?

Saffron is a spice derived from the autumn crocus flower (Crocus sativus), a perennial plant that blooms in the fall. There are three parts of value to the flower. The stigma, or signature red threads in the center, are known as saffron. As well, the yellow stamen, also in the center of the flower, and the blue or purple petals are prized components in fabric dyes. Of these, saffron has the greatest value, commanding a wholesale price of up to $10,000 per pound.

How long has saffron been used?

In 2022, scientists dated the earliest signs of saffron domestication to ca. 1700 BC during the Minoan civilization in Crete, although pigments made with a variety of crocus flowers have been found in prehistoric cave paintings in Iraq dating back about 50,000 years ago. The use of saffron in the Mediterranean spread on account of its purported medicinal value, but in Iran flowers, including roses, have been used in cooking for centuries.

Azupiranu, meaning saffron, is first mentioned in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical dictionary. The word “saffron” dates to the 12th century to the French word “safran,” derived from the Latin safranum itself originating from the Arabic za'farān and Persian zarparan, or “gold strung.”

What does saffron taste like?

Saffron has a floral, earthy flavor that becomes slightly sweet, and has some honey notes . The presence of crocin, a carotenoid compound also in gardenias, lends saffron its signature tinge of bitterness.

Why is saffron so expensive?

Saffron’s high price is due to its labor-intensive and time-specific production. Corms, or bulbs, are planted in summer, and the flowers mature in late September or early October. The flowers bloom for only a few days and must be harvested by hand early in the morning when they open. Farmers use their thumbnail and index fingers to cut the flower off at the base, making sure to get clean, fresh plants, which require careful handling to prevent them from getting mangled. The three stigmas are picked by hand from each flower and then dried for use as a spice. Each stigma weighs approximately two milligrams. In order to produce one kilogram of saffron, about 370 to 470 hours are required to pluck 150,000 flowers of their stigma.

How to tell the difference between real and adulterated saffron

Saffron’s high demand and labor-intensive production make it one of the most adulterated spices in the world. Often, other flowers and spices such as marigold, turmeric, and safflower are mixed with genuine saffron for counterfeit versions. So how can you tell if you’ve got real or adulterated saffron?

Smell: Saffron stigma should smell floral, and sweet, with notes of vanilla and honey and hints of hay. They should not have a metallic smell, which is a good indicator of adulteration.

Sight: According to the Geneva-based International Standards Organisation, a saffron stigma should be dark red and shaped like a trumpet, serrated at the top and joined at the end.

Taste: Saffron contains crocin, a compound also found in gardenia flowers. It’s naturally bitter and disappears after a few seconds before it gives way to musky and warm notes of honey and flowers.

How long does saffron last?

When it comes to saffron, a little goes a long way. Store saffron, whether the threads or in powdered form, in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, where it will keep for two to three years.

How do you cook with saffron?

One of the most common preparations is to steep a few threads of saffron in water, a process known as blooming, just before adding them to a recipe, such as Skillet Chicken and Chorizo Paella and Cioppino with Fennel and Saffron. But they can also be toasted for about 30 seconds in a pan, either dry or folded into a sachet of aluminum foil, as in Saffron Rice Pudding.

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