Saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world. The threadlike red stigmas—and the yellow hue they impart—are quite literally the stuff of legend. But what is saffron, exactly? No matter how many tales have been told about the spice, a lot of us still don’t know what to do with it or whether its worth the high cost. Here’s everything you need to know.
Where does saffron come from?
The spice originates from a flower called crocus sativus—commonly known as the “saffron crocus.” It is believed that saffron originated and was first cultivated in Greece, but today the spice is primarily grown in Iran, Greece, Morocco, and India. While micro-scale production of saffron does exist in the United States, most saffron found here is imported.
What does it taste like?
Saffron is extremely subtle and fragrant. The slightly sweet, luxurious taste is totally enigmatic—it’s tricky to describe but instantly recognizable in a dish. As annoying as it is to say, you know it when you taste it.
How should I use it?
Grind 2 tsp. saffron threads, along with a sugar cube or a pinch of coarse salt, to a powder with a mortar and pestle or a spice mill to draw out the most flavor and color. Then add ¼ cup warm water and let cool. This is the vibrant elixir to use in your paella, buttery saffron rice, and special occasion desserts like saffron-rose water brittle.
Why is it so expensive?
Each flower produces only three threads (stigmas) of saffron, and it blooms for only one week each year. The saffron must be harvested—by hand!—in the mid-morning, when the flowers are still closed in order to protect the delicate stigmas inside. It takes about 1,000 flowers to produce just one ounce of saffron. That’s why you’ll pay $10 to $13 per gram for the real deal. To make sure you’re getting the best stuff, take a sniff—you want saffron that smells a bit like sweet hay. It should also have all red stigmas, no yellow stamens.
How do I store saffron?
Keep threads in a cool, dry, dark place (you can put it in the freezer for up to a year). Saffron water can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for up to three weeks.