Saffron the Red Gold Spice: 21 Things to Know


Saffron, known as the most expensive spice in the world, is an elegant and mysterious spice used in many dishes around the world. It is rare and only grown in handful of countries, but what makes this spice so unique and sought after?

Saffron is a legendary spice that’s been used for millennia. Saffron can cost well over $10,000 per kilogram because it takes a large amount of saffron flowers to produce this quantity. It’s used to add flavor to many rice and meat dishes and has also been used in perfumes for thousands of years.

Keep reading on as we answer every question you could ever have about the red gold spice, including its origins, growing capabilities, and proper storage methods.

Photo of saffron pouring out of a wood spoon with a saffron flower to the lower right
Photo by George Tsartsianidis

What is Saffron?

Saffron is a spice which has been used as a medicinal and cooking ingredient for thousands of years. It was likely first cultivated in Greece, where they used it to treat many illnesses and therapeutically to help those with mental stresses.

This spice comes from the crocus sativus flower that flourishes in locations with generous spring rains followed by dry, hot summers. It can tolerate frost with temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius) and some light snow cover. However, the plant needs full sun and prefers well-draining soil to avoid becoming water-logged and damaged.

Why is Saffron Called the Red Gold Spice?

Saffron is often referred to as “red gold” because of its red color and because it’s the most expensive spice globally. The spice costs so much, and the supply is so unreliable, that there are often global shortages of saffron. When the supply runs low, the already high cost of the spice increases even further.

Some people stockpile their quality saffron so that when the supply is low, they can sell it for a high price and make a lot of money. This tactic is practiced in different areas throughout Spain, where the spice grows. In this way, the investing, saving, and selling of saffron makes the spice similar to gold; only this version is a rich, red color; hence the nickname “red gold.”

How Much Does Saffron Cost?

Saffron can cost well over $10,000 per kilogram because it takes a massive amount of saffron flowers to produce this quantity of spice. Upwards of 150,000 flowers may be required to create one kilo of saffron. Considering these flowers need to be picked by hand, the labor and land costs that go into one kilo of saffron are nothing short of immense.

There are also different strains and potencies of the colorful spice. The highest grades of saffron are the most expensive, and lower grades of saffron cost less. But it can be hard to determine the difference, and you can end up paying premium prices for less-than-optimal products.

Why is Saffron So Expensive?

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world because of the high labor levels and low yield of saffron flowers. The crops bloom once a year for a period of one to two weeks in the late fall. One saffron flower will produce three stigmas; stems that are dried and crushed into saffron powder.

These stigmas require hand-picking during the two-week blooming period. Not surprisingly, the work is seriously labor-intensive, requiring many experienced, precise hands to pluck the saffron strings from the flowers quickly and delicately. On average, it takes 40 hours of labor to pick 150,000 flowers, which is the equivalent of one week of work for one kilogram of saffron.

What is So Special About Saffron?

Saffron is a legendary spice used for millennia. It has a long history of importance in different cultures around the world. In Greco-Roman frescoes, you can see images of saffron flowers being collected by young ladies. It also played a role as a therapeutic drug throughout Greek culture for physical and mental disorders.

As the reputation of saffron grew, it became one of the most in-demand goods traded throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Cleopatra famously sprinkled saffron into her baths for its cosmetic and dyeing effects and believed that it’d make sexual encounters more enjoyable. Egyptians also made a salve out of saffron seeds, coriander, ox fat, and myrrh for treatment of internal hemorrhaging.

Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)
Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)

Greek and Roman garment-makers crafting robes would use saffron as a substitute for purple dye, as it gave a less-rich but still effective color.

The sweet, hay-like scent of saffron made it an effective deodorizer and perfume. Wealthy Romans sprinkled it in their baths, used it as mascara, and completed their potpourri with it to spread the pleasant scent throughout their homes.

In the Middle East, saffron was more popular as a pigment and has been found in the paint of prehistoric cave drawings dating back more than 50,000 years. Sumerians used the spice in their salves and powerful tinctures. It went on to be cultivated in ancient Persia, where it was woven into carpets and burial garments. It was also used in perfumes, dyes, and acted as a medication for depression and sadness.

Traders later brought saffron to India, China, Europe, and eventually, North America.

What Does Saffron Taste Like?

Saffron is an enigmatic spice that is hard to recreate taste-wise. While you can mimic the color, the aroma and taste are impossible to pin down. Saffron is somewhere between sweet and bitter, and the way it presents itself in a dish differs depending on the other ingredients. You can use it in both sweet and savory dishes, and the aromatic presence of saffron will change slightly according to the other flavors in the dish.

Saffron is most often used in mild dishes that won’t overpower the expensive spice’s subtle presence. It shows up best in rice dishes like pilafs and risotto and is famously used to create traditional paella. Many people use turmeric instead of saffron in paella, but the absence of saffron is unmistakable.

What is Saffron Used For?

Historically, saffron was used as a garment dye, a staple element in restorative salves and balms, potions, and much more. Saffron has had a long life evolving from a colorful pigment in cave painting to a gourmet ingredient worth thousands of dollars per kilogram. Nowadays, saffron is used for many things, including cooking, perfume, cosmetics, and physical and mental ailments.

Cooking

Saffron is a trademark ingredient in several dishes. For one, it gives paella its signature color and unique aroma. It’s used in many mild-flavored rice pilafs to elevate the meal and is also found in sweet foods like Swedish baked goods and frozen Indian desserts.

As a general rule, saffron complements dishes that don’t have an overpowering flavor. That’s why rice, chicken, pork, dairy, and white breads are great companions to the dazzling red gold spice.

Perfumery

This aromatic spice was used as a perfume for thousands of years, often directly applied to the skin or crushed and mixed with warm oil first. Today, you can find saffron as a key ingredient in many mid to high-end perfumes. It’s often paired with vanilla, jasmine, rose, patchouli, and bergamot.

Cosmetics

Saffron is used as an active agent in modern cosmetics. It’s a natural pigment and offers many benefits for the skin, including:

  • Acts as an anti-UV agent
  • Offers anti-aging effects
  • Protects against some skin diseases
  • Reduces effects of rashes and inflammation
  • Minimizes redness and dark spots

Physical and Mental Ailments

As a natural supplement, saffron is used to treat many physical and mental ailments. According to RxList, it is used for asthma, cough, whooping cough, and loosening of phlegm. It’s also used for insomnia and other ailments like cancer, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Saffron is also used for women suffering menstrual cramps and premenstrual syndrome, and men for premature ejaculation prevention and infertility.

Photo of three purple saffron flowers against a white backdrop
Photo by George Tsartsianidis

How to Tell if the Saffron you Bought is Real

There are three key criteria that you can use to judge whether your saffron is authentic or not: the appearance, the taste, and the smell.

Saffron is sold most commonly in “threads.” Threads are the dried stigmas that grow in groups of three out of the bright purple saffron flowers. The threads are plucked by hand and dried, packaged, and sold near their natural form. While you can purchase ground saffron, it’s much more difficult to determine whether ground saffron is legitimate or high quality.

Appearance

Real saffron will come in thin, tapering threads that are about 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cms) long. They’re bright red, but your skin should be tinged yellow if you rub one thread between your thumb and forefinger.

You can also test the validity of your saffron by placing a few threads in a shallow, glass dish with warm water and observing them for over an hour. True saffron will slowly turn the water yellow, while the threads will remain red and intact if you remove them from the glass.

Fake saffron may:

  • Color the water red immediately
  • Lose its color in the water
  • Not tinge the water at all
  • Fall apart once submerged or removed

Taste

If you’ve never tasted saffron before, it may be difficult to determine whether the product you’ve purchased is real, going by taste alone. However, saffron is similar to vanilla—smells sweet but tastes bitter.

Once you’ve cooked a few dishes with saffron, you’ll become more familiar with the taste. If you’re at a friend’s house who’s cooked with saffron, ask if you can take a look or even taste part of a saffron string to aid in your saffron taste-testing in the future.

Smell

Again, the smell of saffron may be hard to recognize if you haven’t used it before. Considering the spice was common in perfumes and deodorants during the last thousands of years, you can expect it to have a signature scent. Saffron smells slightly sweet and earthy, like honey and hay. This aroma becomes even more apparent as saffron is cooked with the heat releasing the hay-like scent into the air.

Where Can You Buy Real Saffron?

Real saffron is often sold at specialty food markets. Gourmet grocers may carry threads of saffron and may even keep them in a locked area or behind the checkout counter because of their value. Shops that specialize in bulk herbs and spices or stores that focus on ingredients from the Middle East may also carry saffron.

You can also find saffron sold online by many different retailers, including Amazon (Movalyfe Coupe Spanish Saffron) and Walmart (La Mancha Prime Spanish Saffron. No matter where you get your saffron from, it’s important to test its authenticity when you bring it home.

What are Some Substitutes for Saffron?

Whether you’re looking to cut costs or need saffron for a recipe pronto, there are other ingredients you can use in its place. Most of these replacements are a copycat of saffron’s color because there are none that can exactly replace the flavor.

Turmeric

If you want to reproduce the same saffron-golden color in a dish, you can use turmeric. Turmeric is a spice in the ginger family and is heavily used in curried dishes. It’s the ingredient that gives curry its rich yellow-orange color, so it’ll lend this feature to your meals as well. However, turmeric doesn’t have the same flavor as saffron, so your dish will taste more peppery with turmeric versus the subtle earthiness of saffron.

Safflower

Safflower is sometimes called “Mexican Saffron” and is sold in a similar form. You can get dried strands of safflower that are more orange than saffron, but the herb does not have the same potent taste. However, it does recreate a similar hue in your meal. While the flavors are different from saffron, safflower is a pleasant-tasting spice with a sweet aroma.

Shilgochu

If you simply want the look of saffron but don’t need the aroma or taste, you can use shilgochu. These dried chili threads are a staple in Korean cuisine and look very similar to saffron. They can be quite spicy in large quantities, but if you have a recipe that calls for a saffron garnish or just need to photograph something with “saffron,” you can utilize shilgochu.

Which Country Produces the Most Saffron?

Iran is, by far, the global leader in saffron production. They grow and export 90-93 percent of the world’s saffron. In 2019, Iran produced 430 tons of the product. The next top producer in 2019 was India, with 22 tons.

While Iran produces the highest quantity of saffron, they don’t necessarily produce the best. it’s generally accepted that the best saffron in the world comes from Kashmir, a region that has areas held by China, India, and Pakistan.

Which Countries Use Saffron?

Saffron is used around the world for many reasons. It’s often imported as a dry good and stocked in gourmet grocery stores. But it’s also brought into countries simply as an ingredient in luxury makeup and perfumes or used as a garnish for rice in Spain, Iran, India, and Pakistan. The flavor profile of saffron makes it suitable for South and East Asian cuisines.

In Sweden, saffron is a trademark ingredient in their festive saffron buns, a type of subtly sweet baked good consumed during Advent. Moroccans are also fans of the ingredient, using it in chermoula, a Moroccan spice mixture used to flavor seafood, fish, and other meats.

Where Does Saffron Grow Best?

The saffron crocus plant is hardy and can withstand many different climates. However, it can be finicky in terms of what’s needed for the plant to flourish. To get rich, purple flowers that produce the delicate stigma used to make saffron, the plant requires an arid, dry climate in the summer. Since the flowers bloom in the fall, the plant must receive proper care throughout the summer.

Heavy rains and soggy soil will kill the crocus. While they enjoy being thoroughly watered, the plant needs well-draining soil that won’t hold onto moisture. Root rot and mold are notorious saffron killers for those who take on the plant for the first time.

The plant can survive in low temperatures and frosts throughout the winter, but summers should be warm to hot. An arid climate with hot, dry breezes and some rain is perfect for the saffron crocus.

A wooden spoonful of saffron on a white backdrop
Photo by Vishakha Shah

Can You Grow Saffron in the U.S.?

Saffron is mostly imported to the U.S., though it can grow in many places throughout the country. The saffron crocus plant is suitable for cultivation in hardiness zones 6 through 8. In the United States, these zones are plentiful and include part or all of the following states:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

Can You Consume Saffron Raw?

You can consume raw saffron. The spice is mostly packaged and sold in a dried, raw form. However, eating saffron “raw” won’t deliver the entire saffron experience. Like most spices and herbs, applying heat for an extended period will help release the ingredient’s flavor, scents, and chemicals.

When using saffron in a recipe, it’s often recommended to soak the threads in hot water for 15 minutes or more, and then add this “saffron water” to your recipe in the last 10-15 minutes of cooking. The initial steeping or “blooming” helps to release all of the benefits of saffron, while the saffron water’s late addition will keep the maximum flavor and aroma in the dish.

How Long Does Saffron Stay Fresh?

Saffron is a dried plant, so it’ll stay usable for years. However, it’s the freshest in the first six months after production. After this, the potency of the spice diminishes, though you can increase the longevity of your saffron by storing it in an airtight jar in a cool, dry place. The substance is also sensitive to light, so darkness is better for the spice as well. Alternatively, you can wrap the saffron threads in foil to keep the light out.

How to Properly Store Saffron

Once you bring your cherished saffron home, you need to take proper care of it to make the most of your investment. Saffron can last for years if stored properly. Otherwise, it will lose its flavor and aroma very quickly. Here’s how to make the most of your saffron:

  1. Wrap the threads in opaque foil to block the light.
  2. Place the foil in a glass container with an airtight lid.
  3. Store the saffron in a cool, dry place – your pantry or fridge work best.
  4. Do not leave the saffron exposed to moisture or oxygen unless you are about to use it.

Is Saffron Difficult to Grow?

Saffron is not particularly hard to grow. The crocus sativus creates its signature bright purple flowers quite easily. However, it won’t always produce the three stigmas that are used to create the spice. The success of saffron is often reliant on the natural geography and weather where it’s planted. Still, if it’s placed in a suitable location, it’ll flourish without intensive care.

Can You Grow Saffron at Home?

You can easily grow saffron at home if you live in the U.S. hardiness zones 6-8 and have suitable soil. You can also create suitable spots for your saffron using well-draining soil and garden beds or pots. If you grow the plant in pots and bring it indoors during the winter, you can increase the potential for success of growing and harvesting saffron.

Can You Grow Saffron Indoors?

If you’re in love with saffron but don’t live in U.S. hardy zones 6-8 or simply don’t have any outdoor space, don’t worry; it’s possible to grow saffron indoors. The key to growing saffron indoors is to pay close attention to the type of soil you use. Dirt that’s packed too tightly will water-log the plant roots, which, in turn, may not produce any stigmas or may die altogether.

Suitable soil for a potted saffron plant includes layering a well-draining soil (often including peat moss) on top of two-three inches (5.-7 cms) of gravel or sand. Placing the gravel at the bottom of the container provides the plant with a safe place for excess water to collect below its roots.

How Long Does it Take to Grow Saffron?

From the time of planting, saffron flowers take about six to ten weeks to develop. As the flowers are produced, they’ll grow three stigmas that you can pluck and dry. Saffron only blooms once a year in the fall, so you have to watch it closely during its blooming season to ensure you pluck the stigmas at the right time.

How Much Saffron Does One Plant Produce?

One saffron plant produces three stigmas. Once dried, these stigmas are called “threads.” Recipes will often call for “X number of saffron threads,” and you’ll learn to recognize exactly how much each recipe needs as you use it more.

As a general rule of thumb, you’ll need three threads per person, per meal. That means for every saffron dish you intend to make throughout the year, you’ll need one saffron flower for each person in your home. If you’re a single person looking to experiment with saffron a few times a year, then three to four flowers will be suitable. If you’re a family of four and want to make a saffron dish once a year, four flowers will do.

If you decide to grow saffron from bulbs, the good news is that one bulb can produce multiple flowers. It’s not guaranteed how many flowers a bulb will produce, so you should still buy as many bulbs as needed if each bulb only produces one to two flowers.

Closing Thoughts

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice because crocus sativus, the plant that produces the luxurious commodity, has a low-yield rate. Each flower only produces three stigmas, the parts of the plant that are dried and sold as a saffron spice, which only flowers once a year. The stigmas must then be hand-picked in a very short timeframe.

If you want to elevate your cooking or benefit from the medicinal properties of saffron, be sure to look for an authentic seller. Buy a small amount of the product and complete the saffron tests first before using or purchasing a large quantity.

Supriya

Hi! I'm Supriya. I'm a home cook, bulldog mom, spicy food lover, and founder of The Spicy Trio. I have been a home cook for about 15 years and have been growing plants for the past six years.

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