Food & Drink

The Surprisingly Beautiful Origin Of Saffron

This is why it's so expensive.
03/24/2014 09:42am ET | Updated September 29, 2016
PAMPORE, KASHMIR, INDIA - OCTOBER 29: Kashmiri farmers pluck threads or crocus from plucked saffron flowers on October 29, 2011 in Pampore, 20 km (13 miles) south of Srinagar the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, India. The world's most expensive spice- Kashmiri Saffron has long, flat and silky threads with a distinctive aroma. Approximately 5,000 flowers are required to provide threads enough to make an ounce. Saffron is a precious spice because of the vast acreage involved in addition to the labor-intensive handpicking of the flowers and extracting of the tiny threads. Increased demand has rendered this spice as one of the rarest, most sought-after spices in the world. Saffron farmers have become concerned at the falling yield of the saffron crop year after year with the changing climatic conditions responsible for a 50 to 60 percent decrease in the yield for the last 16 years. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Saffron, the most sought after of spices, has its origins in the most beautiful of places. This exotic spice is sold in small bundles of long red strands and is heralded for the intense yellow color it imparts on dishes and the complexity of flavor it lends.

Spanish paella and French bouillabaisse wouldn't be as enticing if it weren't for the saffron spice. Luckily, only a few threads are needed to give off its desirable flavor because saffron's price tag is steep (and that is a serious understatement). The price reflects the difficulty of harvesting though, and once you see where saffron comes from we think you'll be a little more forgiving. Read on and learn once and for all why this spice costs significantly more than its weight in gold.

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Saffron, the most sought after of spices, has its origins in the most beautiful of places. This exotic spice is sold in small bundles of long red strands and is heralded for the intense yellow color it imparts on dishes and the complexity of flavor it lends.
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Saffron comes from the crocus flower.
FRANCOIS LO PRESTI via Getty Images
The saffron threads are found in the blossoms of the crocus.
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To be more scientific about it, they are the vivid crimson stigmas, which are the distal end of a carpel. Careful though, not all crocuses are saffron producing -- and some can be poisonous.
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72,000 flowers are needed to make one pound of saffron.
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It takes 4,500 flowers to make just one ounce of saffron because there are only three strands of saffron in each flower. So think about that next time you cook with it. (Are you starting to understand why this spice is so expensive??)
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Each and every saffron thread has to be hand picked.
Yawar Nazir via Getty Images
Seriously. Do you forgive the price tag yet??
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Saffron can only be harvested when the sun, moon and earth are all perfectly aligned.
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Okay, this isn't true at all. But, harvesting saffron does have to happen at very specific times. Saffron crocuses only blossom in mid autumn and they have to be harvested quickly because shortly after the flowers open they begin to wilt.
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Saffron's strength is in its color.
Yawar Nazir via Getty Images
The coloring strength of saffron is actually measured in a lab. It can range from 110-250+ -- the higher the number the better. It's measured for its principal chemical comound, crocin. Crocin is respondsible for the aroma, flavor and color. Generally, a pure red saffron is going to measure highest on the scale. But of course you'll want to be sure that it is a true red color -- and that it hasn't been dyed.
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Messing with saffron is punishable by death.
Flickr: Guillaume Paumier
At least it was centuries ago. In the middle ages, the punishment of altering saffron with other substances was being buried (and sometimes burnt) alive. People have always been serious about their saffron.
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Saffron is more expensive than Kobe beef.
Kobe beef is generally $150 (and more) per pound, whereas saffron can cost up to $315/oz (for the very best kind). That's roughly $5,000 a pound! Luckily, you only need a few strands to flavor an entire meal. Actually, if you use too many strands you risk getting a bitter flavor.
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Saffron has an impressive shelf life.
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There would be nothing worse than spending a small fortune on saffron only to have it lose its flavor shortly after. Lucky for us, saffron keeps its flavor for over two years when properly stored (in a cool, dark place).
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The saffron business is full of fraud.
Kelly Cheng Travel Photography via Getty Images
Be careful when buying saffron. Not even the highest price will guarantee the best quality. Here are three red flags you want to look out for when buying saffron: 1. Long red threads -- this means that the thread has been dyed. 2. A very uniform red color -- this also indicates that the thread has been dyed. 3. Streaks of yellow across the thread -- this can happen when saffron is dyed, when one thread is covered by another causing an uneven dying process.
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To get the most bang for your buck, make saffron tea.
Vishwachetan Nadamani/500px
Saffron releases its flavor when put in contact with warm water (or alcohol). It takes about 20 minutes for this to begin to happen, and the threads will continue to release color and flavor for the following 24 hours -- which is why many saffron dishes taste even better the next day. If you're planning on cooking with saffron, the best thing to do is to steep the strands in the liquid your recipe calls for before you start cooking (that is, if the recipe doesn't account for this already).

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