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Ingredient Spotlight: Saffron

On the left is several tablespoons of Mexican saffron which cost about 25 cents. On the right, is a pinch of saffron threads worth about $6.

I use both.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you the most expensive spice in the world…Saffron!

And why is saffron so expensive?

Well, let me tell you!

First, saffron is the threads (stigmas) of the saffron crocus. A flower not found in the wild but probably hybridized thousands of years ago (we’re talking Bronze Age, here!), this little crocus is sterile. Which means it needs human intervention to reproduce.

Next, each crocus plant produces four or less flowers. And get this: those flowers contain only 3 threads each!

And then, the saffron crocus is finicky. If it rains before flowering begins, the plant is happy. But if it rains or turns cold during the flowering stage, the crocus becomes sad. It also doesn’t like too much heat and humidity. Or shade. Or rabbits. Or birds. Or rats. Or fungi and nematodes. But when it comes to sunlight and lots and lots of manure, now we’re talking: the saffron crocus gets its groove on!

But wait, there’s more! Once the crocus flower blooms in the morning, it wilts later that day. Which means when the crocus is ready to go, it’s time to get to work! The flowers must be picked by hand—you know, after the morning dew evaporates but before it starts to wilt—and quickly dried in order to separate the threads from the flowers. And just to get one pound of saffron threads, someone has to pick about 75,000 flowers. That’s right: 75,000!

No wonder that same pound of saffron costs anywhere from $3000 to $5000!

So, is saffron worth all of that babying and work?

Well, it’s easy for me to say, “Of course, it is!” But of course, I’m not growing or harvesting it either.

Yes, but is it worth it?

I believe so. Saffron’s flavor is unique. It tastes like honey but it’s not sweet. It has a very faint smell of hay but doesn’t taste grassy. It’s tangy like dried lemon zest but not acidic. It’s earthy yet bright. And depending on where it’s from—Iran is the largest producer with other varieties coming from Italy, Afghanistan, Spain, Greece and India (to name a few)—saffron imparts a pale to vivid range of yellow color to food. It’s pretty.

Ultimately, once you try saffron, it’s craveable…and so because of its cost, it is something to savor indeed.

But don’t let the cost deter you. While you may pay anywhere from $6 to $16 for a few pinches of saffron (sold either as threads or ground), a pinch or two is all that most recipes require.

There is, however, another option: Mexican saffron (safflower). While Mexican saffron is not related to saffron, it also paints food yellow and has an earthy taste and aroma. Plus, it’s inexpensive. I once bought a sandwich bag-sized amount for only one dollar! Like real saffron, Mexican saffron also has a place in my kitchen. Together, they make rice dishes absolutely golden!

To see how I use saffron, stay tuned for a recipe featuring the Most Expensive Spice on the Planet!

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