Skip to main content

What is saffron and why is it so expensive?

What saffron is, and how to use it

saffron flowers
Mohammad Amiri / Unsplash

Many people know saffron as one of the most expensive spices in the world – but few know why. Saffron has many uses, including its use as a flavorful spice in Moroccan, Indian, and Iranian cuisines. Some people also use this precious spice for its health benefits, such as its cancer-fighting properties and even boosting mood in individuals with anxiety or depression. So, what’s in saffron that makes it so unique?

If you’ve been curious about this special spice, this guide is for you. Here, we’ll break down where saffron comes from, how it is used, and what makes it one of the most expensive spices in the world.

saffron plant
Victoria Bowers / Pexels

What is saffron?

Saffron is harvested from crocus sativus, a flower that is also called the saffron crocus or the autumn crocus. This plant is typically grown in Iran, Afghanistan, India, Greece, Morocco, Spain, and Italy. Although saffron is grown in all of these countries, about 90% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran. There are some places throughout the United States where saffron is grown, but most saffron is imported.

opened saffron flower
Mehdi Torabi / Unsplash

Uses for saffron

Saffron is used most commonly for its unique flavor as a vibrant addition to many types of dishes. Its coloring also makes it a great way to add a natural food dye to dishes too. Dishes such as Spanish paella or Indian curries are enhanced by using saffron. Since this spice has such a unique earthy flavor, the flavor is unlike any other known spice. The spice often comes in a dried form for use in recipes. In addition, saffron extract is sometimes used to dye different types of textiles.

Although expensive, some people also use saffron for its unique health benefits. This spice contains many antioxidant compounds that have been found to improve inflammation in the body and even have antidepressant properties. The antioxidants found in saffron might also help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body, which may continue to its anti-cancer properties. Some people have even found that taking saffron supplements helped to improve symptoms of depression or anxiety.

spanish paella used with saffron
Prabal Pratap Singh / Pexels

Why is it so expensive?

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, often referred to as “red gold.” Unlike other spices you’re likely to have on your spice rack, saffron costs between $10 and $20 for a gram. What makes saffron so expensive is the method by which it is harvested. The purple flower part of the plant is not what is used for the saffron spice. Instead, it’s the dried stigma (the small bulb you see in the center) that is dried to be used as a spice. Since this super small portion of the plant is the only part used for making the spice, more plants are required to make the spice. It takes 75,000 saffron flowers to make one pound of the spice. Each saffron plant only produces about three threads.

However, this is only one of the reasons why saffron is so expensive. The spice is also harvested manually, which makes it more labor-intensive to harvest than other types of spices. The harvesting process must be done very carefully since the stigma of the plant is very fragile. In addition, this part of the plant can be easily damaged by the sun, which means it must be harvested early in the morning. The delicate process of harvesting saffron requires a person to manually pick the threads out of the flower. Given that there’s no way to use machines to harvest saffron, it’s easy to understand why this spice is pricy.

To add to the complexity of harvesting saffron, the spice also has a pretty short harvesting window. The plant will bloom in the autumn months but only for about two to three weeks of the year. This short, critical period between October and November is another component of why the spice is so expensive.

saffron spice
RDNE Stock project / Pexels

Spotting fake saffron

Some companies have turned to making imitation saffron to get around the high costs of harvesting natural saffron. But imitation saffron products have extra fillers added in such as safflower. Sometimes companies will also use red food coloring to make fake saffron seem real. However, you can spot the difference in its taste and smell. True saffron will have a floral, earthy taste with just a touch of sweetness and will have a strong floral aroma. A non-genuine saffron product might have more of a metallic or bitter taste or smell to it.

Purchasing your saffron from a reputable source can help ensure you’re getting the real thing. You may find this spice at local health food or grocery stores, but it may be a bit harder to locate than more common and inexpensive spices. If you do find it in a grocery store, be aware that it may not be in its ground or powdered form yet. Using a mortar and pestle, you can easily crush up saffron at home for use in all of your favorite recipes.

Another way to spot fake saffron is to try rubbing it between your fingers. Authentic saffron should leave a yellow color or tinge on your hands, whereas this may not occur in imitation saffron products.

Emily Caldwell
Emily is a freelance writer with a special focus on health, fitness, lifestyle, food, and nutrition topics. She holds a B.S…
This is why that bottle of wine is so expensive
What goes into a bottle of wine? A lot
Picked red wine grapes in vineyard

What does it cost to make a bottle of wine? A lot, quite frankly. So much is involved—from farming expenses made more extreme by climate change to dealing with the three tier system and big players strapped with cash—that it is hard to keep track of.

So, in the name of context and a better understanding of what you're actually paying for, let's dive in. When you buy a bottle of wine, you're not just buying fermented fruit in a bottle. You're buying a product that rides on the shoulders of many (actual people and facets), with a price that tries to take all of that into account.

Read more
What on earth is Major League Eating? It’s more than a hot dog eating contest
A league for eaters
Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.

If you think your chance at being a pro athlete is too farfetched, think again. Major League Eating is a thing, and the gluttonous league is growing in popularity. You probably know of it, thanks to the annual summertime hot dog eating contest, but there's a lot more to this oddball association.

MLE was founded in 1997 and, like any reputable organization, comes with a catchy logo (featuring a fork in hand). Headquartered in New York City, the league is most widely known for the July hot dog spectacular, a spectacle that's so intriguing that ESPN provides coverage. Well, the league that brought you Joey Chestnut — the man who once ate 76 hot dogs in a single sitting — has an entire family of events that span the calendar and take place in both the U.S. and Canada.

Read more
What exactly is a latte? All about this beloved drink
What makes a latte so delicious?

Everywhere you turn -- from Starbucks to Dunkin' -- lattes are being advertised. Classic, iced, mocha or even seasonal flavors like the pumpkin spice latte showcase this delicious espresso drink in endless varieties. Yet, in its basic form, a latte is a delicious classic crafted espresso drink that never goes out of style. While many of us enjoy ordering our favorite lattes, few stop to appreciate what ingredients make up this drink and how the unique art of crafting one plays into the final result. Before you order your next latte, we'll answer all of your "what is a latte" questions and explore the creation process. Whether you make lattes at home or order them while on the go, you'll soon have a newfound appreciation for this beloved espresso drink.
What is a latte?

Called a latte here in the U.S., this drink originated in Italy as the caffé latte. Made with espresso and steamed milk, a latte requires only two ingredients in its basic form. Of course, modern adaptations of the drink, such as a Pistachio Latte, require additional flavorings and ingredients. Part of what makes a latte unique is the ratio between steamed milk and espresso. In most standard lattes, a 1:3 ratio is used, meaning one part espresso is used to three parts steamed milk. However, the ratio between steamed milk and espresso can vary depending on the size of the latte and who makes it.

Read more