Cooking with Saffron, the World's Priciest Spice

Cooking with saffron has been a prized practice since prehistory. This golden, precious spice is the epitome of an artisanal treat.

| December/January 2011

  • You can use much less saffron than most recipes call for.
  • When all the flowers in your garden are dying and succumbing to early frosts, imagine waking up to a burst of bright purple, yellow and crimson. Imagine, too, the money you will save by growing, harvesting and toasting your very own saffron.
    Photo by Susan A. Roth

The temptation to mess with the world’s priciest spice will always prove too strong for some. With the current retail price at $1,500 to $5,000 a pound, even a tiny amount of tampering can rake in a tidy profit. Ten years ago in Bradford, England, tests revealed that almost a quarter of saffron on sale had been adulterated. Importers had diluted the precious scarlet stigmas by mixing in worthless yellow stamens and adding artificial coloring. Worldwide, it is estimated that 5 to 8 percent of the spice is tainted in this and other ways.

6 Saffron Recipes

Kashmir Saffron Tea
Saffron Cake
Seafood Paella for 4 Hungry People
Saffron Rice Pudding
Saff Mash
Hake in Saffron Sauce 

Why is saffron so expensive?

But what makes saffron so expensive in the first place? Each purple flower of the Crocus sativus plant produces three trumpety stigmas of golden red. One pound of saffron requires 50,000 to 75,000 of the blossoms and 70,000 to 200,000 of the dried threads—and a lot of patience and dexterity. There are no shortcuts, no machines to ease the load. It’s a family affair, all done by hand much as it was hundreds of years ago, from the planting and the picking to the plucking and the toasting. And it’s a race against the clock. During harvest time (from late October to mid-November), the blossoms must be picked between sunrise and 10 a.m., and the stigmas removed immediately before they disintegrate into a sticky mess. Drying methods vary, but in Spain they are toasted in a sieve over charcoal embers before being put into airtight containers and stored in a cool, dark place. An artisanal spice, if ever there were one.

See an image of saffron growing. 

Ancestral Spice: Saffron Uses

Turn out a tin of saffron onto your palm. Admire the fragile tangle of deep red threads. Hold it up to your nose and inhale its delicate but distinctive perfume—hay-like, honeyed, bitter-sweet. What you are contemplating is not only spice-as-work-of-art, spice-as-labor-of-love, but also spice-as-ancient-history—even pre-history. Cave art in present-day Iraq shows that 50,000 years ago, our ancestors used saffron pigments to paint their beasts yellow. It was the ancient Minoans, however, who first cultivated the wild crocus some 3,500 years ago—as evidenced by the saffron frescoes found on the island of Santorini. One painting shows young girls and monkeys picking the blossoms under the watchful eye of a goddess; another depicts a woman using saffron to treat a bleeding foot.

In the Old Testament, saffron is among the sweet-smelling spices in the Song of Solomon. Cleopatra used it as an aphrodisiac, a perfume and a tanning agent. In Greek mythology, a love affair gone bad between the nymph Smilax and mortal Krokus ended with him being turned into the plant bearing his name. The Greeks and Romans used the spice to dye their clothes (and hair!); to freshen up their public squares and theatres; to embellish their wine; and as an offering to their gods. When Buddha Siddartha died, his followers dyed their robes with pungent saffron.



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