Saffron might just be the most sought-after ingredient on Earth. Known for its delicate threads, soft, fresh taste, and dramatic red color, this spice is used throughout the world to bring unique flavor and a touch of luxury to dishes. Of course, saffron is also known for being one of the most expensive ingredients on the planet. But why is the price so high? And why do adventurous eaters chase this spice around the globe? Explore the story of saffron, and you’ll learn why this one special ingredient deserves a spot on every cook’s spice rack.
What is Saffron?
Saffron is a spice that has been inspiring cooks for centuries. Originally traded in the Fertile Crescent 3,500 years ago, the spice quickly became a regional staple. Though it’s used all over the world today, it’s still most associated with fragrant stews and rice dishes from the Middle East and nearby areas like India and southern Europe.
Saffron is bright red and sold as threads, which will create a nice visual contrast to the other herbs you might use in your cooking. Depending on the dish, you might keep these threads whole, or you might crush them into a powder. Just be careful not to buy pre-ground saffron. To get the best flavor, you want to stick to the threads and gently crush them yourself by hand or with a mortar and pestle.
Saffron also has a flavor that will stand out even more than its lively color. So what does saffron taste like? It’s subtle, warm, and slightly floral. While some detect a sweet underlying flavor similar to honey, others would describe the flavor as more robust and slightly bitter. One of the many special things about saffron is that it can taste so different from person to person. There is truly no other spice like it.
Where Does Saffron Come From?
Saffron comes from the crocus sativus (also known as the saffron crocus). This flower is native to Eurasia and was first used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Over the years, this flower has been domesticated across the world and is now grown in six different continents, though the rich soil of its native region still produces the highest quality saffron. Iran is the top saffron exporter, growing over 90% of the world’s supply. Greece, Spain, India, and Morocco are also native suppliers of the spice.
Saffron’s cultivation process is totally unique in the culinary world. Saffron threads are actually the whole stigmas, or female reproductive parts, of the crocus sativus. These stigmas are pulled out of the flowers and dried before they are distributed as saffron. Each crocus only contains three stigmas, and these must be individually plucked out of the flowers to avoid damaging the rest of the plant.
Why Saffron is Worth its Weight in Gold
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, with a single pound costing thousands of dollars. Why is saffron so expensive? Two factors contribute to the cost: the flower that produces saffron, and the labor needed to harvest it.
Crocus sativus is a notoriously difficult flower to harvest. The plant only blooms for a roughly six week period. Because harsh sunlight can harm the chemicals in saffron, laborers usually choose to harvest the flowers during the early morning hours. Since each flower only contains a few saffron threads, over 100,000 flowers must be hand-picked in order to produce one pound of the spice. Luckily, you won’t need to buy pounds and pounds of saffron. A small tin will go a long way.
How to Use Saffron
Despite its luxurious reputation, saffron is easy to use and versatile in the kitchen. Just a small pinch will give foods and drinks a pop of brightness that is uniquely Middle Eastern. Adding saffron to simple grain or meat dishes can help to elevate popular flavors and make staple weeknight dishes taste brand new. Create a saffron rice pilaf with chicken, or add saffron to your Indian curry dishes. It’s even a great secret ingredient for desserts!
Saffron is also used in beverages. In India, saffron milk is known for its comforting taste and medicinal properties. To make a glass for yourself, steep two or three saffron threads in a cup of warm milk. Add sugar, honey, or other spices like turmeric to taste. Similarly, you can make a simple saffron tea by steeping a few saffron threads in hot water. This cup of healthy goodness will warm you inside and out.
Saffron Health Benefits
In addition to its color and flavor, saffron is also used for its powerful medicinal properties. Crocin, a chemical compound found in saffron, is used to help regulate brain function. Studies have shown crocin to be a powerful tool for helping to fight mood disorders like depression by promoting serotonin and dopamine production. It may also be useful in fighting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Crocin has also been used to promote skin, eye, and respiratory health.
Saffron is a good source of vitamin B2 and potassium. It’s high in an antioxidant called safranal, which can limit the damage that environmental toxins have on the body. Because saffron is used so sparingly, you can combine it with other tasty medicinal herbs like turmeric and cardamom for extra nutrition.
Adding just a pinch of saffron to your foods and drinks will not only add a lovely flavor, but it will also give your body a health boost. Just be sure to check with a doctor or naturopath before using saffron to treat a medical condition.
Where to Buy
It’s important to buy high-quality saffron to ensure the best flavor and nutritional benefits. Not all saffron is created equal, and finding a good one at your local supermarket can be challenging. Nomads Marketplace is your online resource for high-quality ethnic foods. Learn all about ingredients like saffron on our website, then buy the spices right from our online market. It’s the easiest way to explore the flavors of the world. Shop Persian Saffron.