We Know: All About Saffron

What Is Saffron?

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, literally worth its weight in gold. Made of the dark-orange stigma of crocus flowers, it imparts a unique earthy or hay-like fragrance and taste to most dishes as well as staining white starches a beautiful golden yellow color. Though its flavor by itself is bitter, when blended with most foods it is a flavor enhancer. It is one of the most fragrant of spices as well, and dissolves well in either water or oil.

Why is Saffron so expensive?

Saffron is expensive because of the labor and land intensive methods used to grow and harvest it. 150 crocus flowers yield only 1 gram of dried saffron, and each stamen must be picked by hand. Crocuses are also hard to grow, as they must be hand-fertilized.

How is saffron sold?

Saffron is sold in stamen threads, looking like a tangle of dark yellow-orange heavy string. You need to grind the threads before using them. Saffron should never be pre-ground, as it will quickly lose its flavor. You should always store saffron threads in an airtight opaque container.

Does saffron have medicinal properties?

Like many Eastern spices, saffron was used for a very long time as a medication as well as a spice, and is currently used in Ayurvedic medicine for everything from arthritis to kidney ailments. There is some scientific evidence that it does help with kidney problems, and recent studies suggest that it may also help with cholesterol and high blood pressure. In large doses, though, it can be poisonous; don't overdo the saffron without talking to your doctor.

Where does the best quality saffron come from?

The best-quality saffron in the world comes from Greece (Macedonia), Iran, and Kashmir; it is, however, illegal to import Iranian saffron to America, and Kashmiri saffron, easily the highest quality, is illegal to export from India. You'll find saffron graded from IV (poor quality) to I (best quality). Never buy powdered or ground saffron; it's susceptible to adulteration by adding turmeric or paprika. Expect to pay about $100 to $200 per ounce for good Macedonian or Spanish saffron. (If you buy it at a discount, you are probably going to get adulterated saffron.) That ounce of saffron, though, will last you a very long time; most recipes use ten to twenty threads of saffron, and there are about fourteen thousand threads to an ounce.

Simple Saffron and Basmati Rice

Buy saffron in small unground containers, and grind it yourself with a mortar and pestle, before using in any recipe. Below is a recipe that gives you a very clear saffron flavor, and perfumes the entire house as well. It's best served with grilled salmon with light lemon and butter.


  1. 15-20 threads saffron, ground by you
  2. 1 tablespoon fresh virgin olive oil
  3. 1 cup uncooked basmati rice

Rinse rice and place in medium saucepan with 1.5 cups of boiling water. Add ground saffron and olive oil (good saffron will turn the water and oil yellow almost instantly). Allow to simmer, covered, on very low heat for 15 minutes, then turn off heat, stir, and cover for ten more minutes before serving.

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