Thready, Set, Go! A Saffron Guide
Here’s how to make the most of the world’s most expensive spice (you only need a pinch!). With buying tips, amazing recipes, and a side of history.
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Hidden for around 3,600 years under volcanic ash and pumice, the Akrotiri settlement on the Greek island of Thera (now known as Santorini) holds stunning clues about saffron’s prized status in the ancient world. “The Saffron Gatherers,” a circa 1650 BCE fresco unearthed during archaeological excavations, depicts fancy, bejeweled ladies hand-harvesting the spice.
We don’t know precisely where it originated, but saffron has been used since ancient times in Sumeria (now Iraq), Greece, Persia (now Iran), and India. It was prized in medieval Europe, too.
Cleopatra supposedly bathed in it. Alexander the Great, going for an “I-am-a-golden-god!” look, reportedly dyed his hair with it (and may have bathed in it to heal battle wounds). And while hypotheses abound about the meanings and mysteries represented in the Akrotiri fresco, archaeologists and historians agree that the saffron crocus motifs and golden textiles featured so prominently are signs of its extremely high value as a commodity, medicine, dye, and perfume.
All this to say that we modern-day cooks should be crazy for saffron as well! Let's explore this pricey (and worth-it), historically significant spice and its delicious uses in the recipes ahead.
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All your questions about saffron are answered here
Why is saffron so expensive?
Every pound of saffron contains about 200,000 hand-harvested stigmas from about 70,000 (yes, you read that right!) crocus flowers. Each flower contains just three stigmas, and they must be plucked before dawn during a short autumn harvest that lasts just 3 weeks. Humidity and sunlight can impact the quality of the stigmas (aka saffron threads), which must be dried before use. The going price for saffron? Between $5,000 and $10,000 a pound — figures that would be much higher if fieldworkers were paid more for their intense, specially skilled labor. Compare that to vanilla beans, at about $600 per pound, and the second-most expensive spice in the world seems like quite a bargain.
The spice is an important component of Persian cuisine, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Iran harvests most of the world’s saffron (estimates range between 75-90%). Yet while Iranian saffron is highly prized, economic sanctions render it nearly impossible to obtain in the U.S., another factor that drives up the expense.
Fortunately, a pinch of saffron goes a long way — in fact, overdoing it can render a dish bitter. Saffron is usually sold by the gram (about $16 to $18 in August 2023), but the stigmas are so light in weight that you’ll still get enough to flavor several recipes.
Where to buy high quality saffron
A deep red color and long stigmas indicate top quality saffron. (The term “super-negin” indicates the highest quality saffron. “Negin” saffron can also have orange or yellow threads, but it's great, too.)
Good saffron is usually sold in tins or dark containers (versus clear glass) to protect it from the light. Take a cue and store your saffron in a cool, dark, dry place like a pantry to preserve its flavor.
HeraySpice.com is a Chicago-based company that sells saffron grown and harvested by a co-op of farmers in Afghanistan. Founders Mohammad Salehi, Iqbal Zarifi, and Shahram Mohammadi are from farming families in the Herat province, and are committed to funding education there and paying farmers fair wages for their intense and skilled labor.
Tahmina Ghaffer, who was born in Kabul, started the Washington, D.C.-based Moonflowers Co. to support and showcase the Afghan women who are the backbone of the country’s saffron industry. As the Taliban continues to restrict womens’ rights to work, attend school, and enjoy public spaces, the company’s mission is especially important.
DiasporaCo.Com sells Kashmiri saffron, along with a wide selection of individual spices and masalas (spice blends) from India on its informative website.
Looking for Spanish saffron (azafrán)? Tienda.com sells saffron from La Mancha, considered Spain’s best.
Grow your own
Saffron has a reputation for growing in very arid soil, which makes it tremendously valuable to farmers living in regions where most other crops can’t thrive. But that doesn’t mean it can’t grow elsewhere. England was once as famous for its saffron gardens as for its famously wet weather, so you can definitely try growing your own saffron. Saffron crocus bulbs are available online and from some nurseries. Unlike other flowers, it blooms in fall and early winter, so you’ll get lovely late season purple flowers. Of course, you won’t get much saffron from a small-scale gardening project, but might have enough for a meal or two.
What does saffron taste like?
Saffron has a complex flavor and aroma — it may sound contradictory, but it’s both honeyed and slightly bitter, floral and herbal. It’s sometimes described as grassy or haylike. It’s all of those things, and once you taste it, you’ll know it — and may just fall in love.
How to use saffron
To extract saffron’s flavor and transform dishes with its regal golden hue, you’ll first need to infuse it in a little warm water. (Some recipes call for infusing it in cream, milk, or oil instead.)
You can also crush dried saffron between your fingers or in a mortar and pestle before adding it to recipes.
Is ground saffron any good?
Stick to saffron threads. Ground saffron (sometimes called saffron powder) is often adulterated with other spices, fillers, or colorants. Plus, most recipes give saffron quantities in literal pinches with the assumption that you'll be picking up the threads with your fingers. (That's different from the pinch measurement you'll sometimes see for ground spices — say salt or nutmeg — which is officially just 1/16th teaspoon.) If you really need powdered saffron, grind a pinch of saffron threads in a mortar and pestle, or crush it between your fingers.
Properly stored saffron threads can last 2 to 3 years, but ground saffron starts to lose potency within 6 months. Since saffron powder is still pretty pricey, you get more bang for your buck (and a better shot that it's the real thing) when you buy whole threads.
Baking with saffron
From an iconic Swedish bread to a sophisticated cookie, these recipes demonstrate saffron’s flair for adding a beautiful golden color and subtle flavor to baked goods.
This intriguing yeast-risen loaf bread from the Rancho La Puerta spa resort marries saffron and orange for a bread that straddles sweet and savory. Halve the recipe if you only want one loaf.
Simple and luxe at once, these cookies pair perfectly with coffee — the recipe was a menu favorite at artisan roaster Blue Bottle Coffee’s cafes.
Saffron soup recipes
Liquids help saffron bloom (in other words, liberate its food coloring and flavoring powers), so it’s no surprise that soups are the perfect vehicle for enjoying the aromatic spice.
Many recipes for this French cuisine classic are labor intensive. This one streamlines the ingredient list and simplifies the process, for a hearty seafood stew that’s simpler to make.
If you’re allergic to shellfish or keep kosher, you can still get in on the bouillabaisse game. Former restaurateur and kosher cooking maven Levana Kirschenbaum flavors her soup with a generous hit of saffron, and shares a hack for making a rich fish stock that doesn’t require straining or a second pot.
Looking for a vegetarian or vegan saffron-suffused soup option? This elemental Italian cuisine-inspired recipe is elegant and comforting at once.
Saffron-infused side dishes
Just a little bit of saffron adds intriguing flavor and elevates everyday sides into something special.
Once prepped, the veggies in this lovely braise cook in under 30 minutes. If you want to make it a meal, serve it over brown rice as the recipe suggests; you’ll have time to throw the braise together while the rice simmers.
A pinch of turmeric amplifies the golden hue of this saffron-accented vegetarian risotto. Try it with grilled fish or chicken, or as a base for the braised fennel above.
Slow cooked in saffron-infused olive oil, cherry tomatoes turn into a delectably jammy condiment you’ll want to put on everything.
Upgrade standard spuds with Hari Ghotra’s Indian-fusion riff on Spanish saffron potatoes. Don’t let the water’s metric measure scare you off — you’ll need about 1 1/4 cups of H2O.
International saffron classics
Saffron stars in classic dishes from around the world. We’ve rounded up several iconic recipes that’ll help satisfy your culinary wanderlust.
“Tagine” refers to a host of classic Moroccan dishes, and is also the name for the cone-lidded pot they’re made in. If you don’t have the latter, don’t fret — you can still make this delicious tagine in a casserole dish or Dutch oven. Use your favorite boneless, skinless fish or eel. Or swap proteins for a delectable saffron chicken tagine.
Like tagine, paella is both the name of a large, shallow pan and the Valencian saffron rice dish that’s cooked in it. Traditional recipes include chicken and rabbit; seafood and chorizo are popular today. This vegan recipe features mushrooms — plus tips for achieving paella perfection.
Naz Deravian walks you through the technique for making Persian basmati rice with a layer of crispy saffron-hued tahdig — a dish so important that the title of her cookbook, Bottom of the Pot, pays homage to it.
Classic Risotto alla Milanese dates back to the 16th century and includes beef marrow. This vegetarian, gluten-free spin on the creamy saffron risotto loses the marrow and adds asparagus for a pop of color and complementary flavor. When asparagus isn’t in season, try green peas instead.
Saffron-spiced entree recipes
Whether you want to upgrade your weeknight dinner or put something special on the table for guests, these saffron-spiced meals make great additions to your recipe collection.
Clementine juice tempers harissa’s heat in this easy yet elegant chicken recipe. In case you don’t have a grill, the recipe includes instructions for baking the chicken thighs.
You don’t have to pre-cook the pasta to make this veggie-packed, one-dish meal, so it’s ideal for busy weeknights when you want a flavorful dinner that’s deliciously fuss-free.
The saffron sauce alone is reason enough to check out this recipe from James Beard Award-winning chef Hank Shaw. You’ll find loads of great information on choosing and using saffron, too. Of course, you won’t want to miss out on a restaurant-quality plate of trout and greens that comes together in 30 minutes …
Sipping on saffron-infused drinks may be an ideal way to incorporate it into your diet regularly, especially if you’re hoping to capitalize on the spice’s possible health benefits.
This soothing tea is so simple to make — just bring water, saffron, fresh mint, and ginger to a gentle simmer, then sweeten to taste if desired.
Saffron intensifies the gorgeous sunshine hue of this mango-yogurt smoothie from India.
Saffron, vanilla, peach, and basil infuse a big pitcher of iced rooibos tea for a refreshing, antioxidant-rich summer brew. If peaches aren’t in season, swap in other fruit, or skip it and let the spices shine.
Saffron’s versatility is part of its beauty — it’s as brilliant an accent to sweets as it is to savory flavors. These saffron dessert recipes are proof.
We’ll trust a blog with saffron in its name to teach us a thing or two about using the treasured spice — especially when it comes to a candy recipe so dear to author Azita Mehran’s heart.
This simple, classic yogurt-based dessert from India has been enjoyed since antiquity. Creamy, tangy, and sweet, the cardamom and saffron-infused treat is quite nutritious, too.
No ice cream maker? No problem! This saffron and rosewater-flavored ice cream starts with a mixture of sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream, for a lush, egg-free ice cream that doesn’t require churning.
Explore more flavors from around the world with these next articles.