What Is Saffron? Everything You Need to Know About the World’s Most Expensive Spice

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From finding good-quality saffron at the right price to using this spice in home cooking.
 

Imagine strolling through the crowded, buzzing souks of Marrakech and there is likely one vibrant hue that colors the scene: saffron. Woven baskets of saffron powder appear in markets all over Europe and the Middle East, but beware, it’s not as easy to find the real deal as it may seem.

Unlike many luxury foods we’ve covered at Departures—ones deemed gourmet items—saffron isn’t actually considered a delicacy, per se, but rather a high-end spice that significantly enhances any dish. In fact, it’s the most expensive spice in the entire world, with just 1 kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of saffron spice priced around $10,000 (sometimes even more). Would you like a couple pounds of saffron, or a new Omega watch? Many would argue in favor of the saffron, which has a history as rich as the beautiful pigment it produces.

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Below, Departures covers everything you should know about the spice, from the characteristic saffron color to saffron health benefits, saffron price, and more.

What Is Saffron?

Simply put, saffron is a spice that comes from a flower. The flower, crocus sativus or saffron crocus, undergoes a very specific and time-consuming harvesting process in order to preserve the delicate interior threads. The product is most often sold in a powdered spice form, but you can also purchase saffron as the dried threads, or as an oil or extract. It’s said that Cleopatra used to bathe in saffron-infused milk. How’s that for extravagant?

Basket filled with saffron flowers in a field in Jammu and Kashmir, India
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Where Does Saffron Come From?

The saffron plant is actually a flower known as the saffron crocus, or crocus sativus. The saffron threads inside the blossom are what we know as saffron spice. It’s produced in a few places, primarily Iran, parts of India, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, and Morocco.

Why Is Saffron so Expensive?

Saffron is expensive for a few reasons. You can certainly find cheaper options of the spice online, but you will not get the same level of quality unless you spend the money. Saffron is usually imported from another part of the world (there is limited micro-production of saffron in the U.S.), which contributes to the steep price. But it’s mostly about the production process, one that is historically very nuanced and time consuming. When shopping for saffron, keep in mind: the general rule of thumb is that saffron prices usually refer to threads (rather than powder or oil). Because saffron typically contains less than one percent of essential oil, it can be relatively tricky to shop for authentic saffron oil or saffron extract, online or in stores.

Saffron threads, or stigmas in a market
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What Is the Saffron Production Process?

Each crocus bloom contains only three saffron threads, called stigmas. The spice is hand-harvested during mid-morning, while the flowers are still closed, to protect the delicate threads inside. It takes roughly 75,000 flower blossoms to produce just one single pound of saffron spice. Once the saffron threads are harvested, they’re dried over a charcoal fire to yield the highest quality saffron powder.

Pouring fresh saffron tea into a cup from a teapot in a chaikhana (tea house) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
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What Is Saffron Used For?

Lots of things! The delicate flavor and rich color of saffron makes it an incredibly versatile ingredient—one that can enhance a range of foods and drinks. You’ve probably heard of saffron rice, saffron tea, maybe bouillabaisse (a fish stew originating in Marseille but now widely available). Chefs around the world love to get creative with saffron, not only because it adds dimension to the overall flavor, but also because the rich saffron color enhances the appearance of any dish. While cooking is the main use of the spice, saffron benefits extend to traditional Eastern medicine, too. If you’re looking for a saffron substitute while preparing a dish, consider using turmeric in its place.

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What Does Saffron Taste Like?

Saffron’s taste is the epitome of delicate, elegant flavor. Slightly sweet, slightly floral, and a little bit earthy, the spice’s subtle taste is hard to describe but undeniably indulgent. (Pro tip: one way to spot fake saffron is that it will have a metallic or bitter flavor.)

Are There Health Benefits to Saffron?

Yes! The myriad health benefits of saffron are rooted in Eastern medicine. The spice is known for being anti-inflammatory, a wonderful source of antioxidants, and a possible treatment for nervous system disorders, among other things. Saffron tea, for example, is widely used to ease depression and anxiety, to help with menstrual cramps, and to boost heart health.