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What Is Saffron, and Why the Heck Is It So Expensive?

Tuscan chicken in a saffron cream sauce, a plate of Tahdig, and a pot of paella.
VikaLinka/The Mediterranean Dish/Tastes Better from Scratch

Saffron is the gold of spices for your taste buds and your wallet! Once you’ve tasted a dish that highlights just a pinch of these crimson threads, you’ll understand why. Here’s everything you need to know about the world’s most expensive spice.

With the unique appearance of dainty, thread-like stigmas, saffron is used in a plethora of European, Mediterranean, and Asian dishes. But what exactly is it? Let’s take a look.

What Exactly Is Saffron?

A bowl and scooper full of saffron next to a saffron flower.

The bright red threads of saffron come from a flower called Crocus Savitus, which is primarily grown in Greece, Spain, Iran, and Morocco. It’s difficult to explain such a luxurious flavor, but once you’ve had it, you’ll recognize this mysterious yet amazing taste forever.

If you’ve ever had an authentic paella or Persian rice dish, you’ve likely experienced the delicious quality from that unique spice. The only way to understand the rich character is by trying it for yourself.

Most saffron comes in small vessels, and sometimes, you can purchase a large jar filled with a few small vials of saffron. After purchasing it, be sure to keep the spice in the glass jar or vial and store it in a cool, dark place.

Why Is It So Expensive?

Crocus Savitus is the purple flower from which saffron is derived, and it only blooms one week out of every year. The red threads, called stigmas, are the pollen-germinating part of the flower. Each saffron flower bears only three stigmas, which are harvested by hand and dried for color preservation.

Only those tiny little threads are collected to make up the spice that we call saffron, and because all the harvesting is done by hand, the labor-intensive work means big money. According to Britannica, it takes about 75,000 saffron flowers to make one pound of the spice.

Today, you can purchase saffron in most grocery stores. For example, Trader Joe’s sells a small vial that holds at least a few pinches (0.7 grams, to be exact) for under $10. Of course, you can also find superb quality saffron on Amazon!

Zaran Saffron Threads

High-quality, 100% pure Persian saffron.

Unfortunately, today, there are faux variations of this legendary spice, making it hard to gauge whether you are buying the correct one or not. However, you can tell if you selected real saffron based on the price, shape, and color.

Saffron is wide at one end and tapered at the other. The threads should have a deep red hue, with little to no styles, and it’s pretty darn expensive. Also, be sure to steer clear of ground saffron, as it often contains fillers like paprika or turmeric. If a recipe calls for it, grind your own threads.

Cooking with Saffron

Many recipes call for a pinch of saffron, which literally means taking your index finger and thumb and gently pinching together several threads. Because everyone’s “pinch” can look different, you can also carefully count out about 10-15 threads.

A pinch of saffron goes a long way, especially if there aren’t any other competing spices in the dish. However, if the recipe calls for several pungent spices, go for a heftier pinch or 20-plus threads.

You can release the flavor of saffron in a couple of ways. One method is by steeping the saffron in hot water before adding the water and threads to the dish. You’ll notice that the water will turn a yellowish hue from the threads.

You can alternatively crush the saffron threads using a small mortar and pestle and add a pinch of sugar or salt to act as an abrasive and further break down the spice. Finally, add a few tablespoons of water, take in the intoxicating aroma, and then add it to your meal!

Some recipes call for adding the threads directly to a dish. These are usually foods that take some time to cook, so the flavor can be drawn out without having to bloom the spice beforehand.

You’ll find plenty of delicious recipes that call for this spice, but here are some of the most common (and delicious).

Tahdig (Crispy Persian Rice)

Crispy Tahdig (Persian rice) topped with dried cherries, and pistachios.
The Mediterranean Dish

Tahdig (pronounced Tah-Deeg) is an Iranian saying for the bottom of the pot, which refers to a fluffy rice dish that’s buttery on the inside, with a gorgeous golden crust outside. The crispy rice exterior, which is crafted from the bottom of the pot, adds a fantastic texture that you won’t find in any other meal.

The dried cherries scattered throughout the rice add a subtly sweet burst of tang to each bite. However, it’s the saffron threads intermingled within the grains of rice that really make the dish shine. Be sure to follow the instructions for the best results for an authentic Tahdig.

Get the Recipe: The Mediterranean Dish

Tuscan Chicken with Saffron Cream Sauce

Two images displaying Tuscan chicken with a saffron cream sauce and spinach.

You’ll also love exploring the flavors of Tuscany with this rich, cream-based sauce. This dish will make its way to the dinner table within 30 minutes, and you’ll love the intoxicating flavor (and aroma) in each bite.

You’ll learn to gently infuse the cream with saffron while browning the chicken in a separate pan. Then, with a bit of oil, minced garlic, and a white wine for deglazing, the magic of culinary arts brings the ingredients to life. Serve this over basmati rice or polenta.

Get the Recipe: VikaLinka

Spanish Paella

A large deep skillet filled with paella highlighting ingredients like mussels, shrimp, calamari and more.
Tastes Better from Scratch

Learn how to make an authentic Paella, the most popular dish of Spain, following a recipe from a Madrid home. The recipe includes plenty of tips and adaptations for cooking this one-pot meal in an American Kitchen.

Keep in mind that all homes have their own version of “authentic,” which means that this recipe might differ from the one you’ve used over the years. Nevertheless, you’ll love this hearty meal, which highlights a plethora of chicken, seafood, veggies, and, of course, saffron!

Get the Recipe: Tastes Better from Scratch

Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Saffron

A tagine filled with saffron chicken, with fresh chopped parsley on top.
Analida’s Ethnic Spoon

Moroccan tagines are but another famous, stew-like dish known for their aromatic flavor in each bite. The slow-cooked method and married spices offer an astounding oomph of flavor paired with a perfectly tender bite.

If you don’t own the North African cookware known as a Tagine, you can follow the author’s cookware adaptations for this recipe. Serve this succulent saffron dish with basmati rice or couscous.

Get the Recipe: Analida’s Ethnic Spoon

Saffron Cake

Two images of saffron cake by Savory Thoughts.
Savory Thoughts

Get ready to freak out over this perfect, saffron-infused pound cake. That signature taste of saffron can be found in each enticing bite, and you’ll love using it in subtly sweet dishes after trying this one.

Be sure to read through all the tips used in this moist and intriguingly flavored cake recipe before delving in.

Get the Recipe: Savory Thoughts

Now that you know all about those mysterious crimson threads called saffron, be sure to work your way through all of these recipes. And if you want to start grinding all of your own spices, here’s everything that you’ll need to do it!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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