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Saffron: The Most Expensive Spice in the World

Updated on December 3, 2010

Saffron spice

Saffron is one of the rarest and most expensive spices in the world today. The going retail rate of saffron can cost around $5,000 per pound! If that sounds like an exorbitant amount of money for a spice, it is. Like an exotic truffle, rich caviar or a fine bubbly, some things in life are strictly reserved for the rich and famous; or in this case, true spice lovers. It's usage as a spice dates back centuries; even being mentioned in the Bible. For many of us, including myself, it's hard to understand what makes the Crocus sativus flower and it's saffron so desirable...Until now. Just what is saffron? Why is it so expensive? And what on earth is it used for? Let's find out.

Crocus sativus
Crocus sativus

What is saffron?

Saffron comes from the beautifully vivid crocus flower (Crocus sativus). It is native to Southwest Asia, but can be found in many parts of the world. It flourishes and thus is widely produced in Mediterranean climates known for their warm, dry winds and semi-arid soils (ie. Spain, Italy, California). The crocus flower produces three brightly colored stigmas (see photo). These stigmas are then picked and dried out to produce the actual saffron spice. Countries like Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Morocco, and Italy are each known for producing and distributing many varieties of saffron. While Iran is the biggest producer of saffron in the world, Spain is it's biggest exporter.

Picking saffron from the crocus flower.

Why is it expensive?

It has been said that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. So expensive that many chefs will keep it locked up in a safe. If you can afford it, saffron can be used in many food dishes to accentuate flavor, aroma, and color. Is this why it's so expensive? Well, in part. The real reason behind it's high price tag begins with cultivation. In order to gather the saffron, the stigmas of the crocus flower must be handpicked. This becomes very time consuming, considering that in order to produce just 1 gram of saffron, it takes upwards of 300-500. The tedious work of hand-picking stigmas in order to produce saffron is one main reason for why it is so expensive.

What is saffron used for?

Saffron is often used in a variety of dishes to add rich color and a distinct sweet but bitter flavor. Paella is a traditional Spanish dish consisting of rice, seafood and/or meat, and saffron. The saffron gives the paella a bright yellow-orange glow. Saffron is also a main ingredient in other dishes across the world like Iranian chelow kabab, Italian rissotto, and Swedish bread. Aside from these regional favorites, it's often used in any seafood or rice dish, baked goods (scroll down) and even liquors. When looking at it's price tag, it's a good thing that a little goes a long way.

Aside from it's use in food, saffron is known to have many healing properties as well, in both recent and modern medicine. It was once ingested as a curing agent to help reduce fevers and cramps, and to calm nerves. It was also used to treat stomach-aches, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. Today, researchers have found saffron to work as an anti-aging remedy, and even to help fight against cancer.

Today, people not only still use saffron as flavoring and medicine, but to dye their clothes. After seeing the versatility of saffron spice, it's availability, and the labor involved in cultivation, it is easy to see why this popular spice comes at a fair price.

Saffron and other expensive spices

In the world of fine spices and seasonings, saffron is not alone. Pure vanilla and cardamom join saffron in the ranks of expensive spices. You can usually buy these at any gourmet grocery store or many places online (see below). Similar to saffron, vanilla and cardamom are very versatile. Vanilla, aside from it's use as a delicious flavoring, is also used in cosmetics and medicine. Cardamom is another widely used spice originating from the ginger family. Cardamom is used as a spice, as well as a flavoring in both food and drink. One of it's most popular uses is in Arabic coffee. All three of these exotic spices hold medicinal properties as well. But more importantly, they should each hold a spot on your spice rack.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
SaffronVanillaCardamom
Saffron
Saffron
Vanilla
Vanilla
Cardamom
Cardamom
Saffron cookies...delicious
Saffron cookies...delicious

Oh you're still here? Have a cookie...

Saffron Cookies

Recipe courtesy of pieKnits

  • 2 tablespoons milk, slightly warmed
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron strands, slightly crushed
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup softened butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 cup white chocolate chips or slivered almonds or chopped cashews (optional)

In a small bowl warm the milk and add the saffron strands, slightly crushing them. Set aside and let steep, the longer the better.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit.

Whisk flour, baking soda and salt.

Beat butter until softened. Slowly add sugars and beat well until mixture increases in volume.

In a small bowl mix saffron mixture, egg and vanilla. Add egg mixture to butter mixture and beat.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture gradually, stirring until flour is fully mixed. Stir in nuts. Chill for at least an hour.

Form tablespoon size cookies and place on baking sheet.

Bake 12-14 minutes.

Makes 2 dozen

Comments

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    • iguidenetwork profile image

      iguidenetwork 

      4 years ago from Austin, TX

      That's really nice and interesting article. I never knew that such stigmas would produce such valuable spice.

    • carriethomson profile image

      carriethomson 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hey that’s a very detailed hub about saffron!! No wonder saffron is so expensive.. I always wondered but now I know why:)) thanks voted up!!

      carrie

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      7 years ago from California

      RTalloni - They are! Try them out...Thanks for the comment.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      7 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks. I've never stopped to do the research on saffron but have wondered about this info.

      The cookies look fab.

    • profile image

      magnetic spice rack 

      8 years ago

      It is expensive but way too worth for the dish. great hub

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      8 years ago from California

      thanks 2uesday - tis a beautiful flower eh? saffron cakes in the UK..sounds delightful

    • 2uesday profile image

      2uesday 

      8 years ago

      Good hub, I was interested to see what the saffron crocus looked like. I use saffron mainly when cooking risotto. In the past people made special cakes with saffron for Easter (in UK). Thank you.

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      8 years ago from California

      bushraismail - i will do that. thanks for the comment...and your welcome

    • bushraismail profile image

      bushraismail 

      8 years ago from ASIA

      whoa goody good. just try visiting Chinese sauces one of my hubs. thanx for the lovely hub

    • jdaviswrites profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeff Davis 

      8 years ago from California

      That's what I'm here for...glad to hear it.

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 

      8 years ago from Western US

      Fascinating hub! I learned a lot and am glad for the info! Thanks!

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