Looking at the spice shelves in supermarkets, you can’t help but notice one that stands out as very pricy. No, not the whole vanilla bean. Not the whole nutmeg either. The saffron. Why is is so darn expensive ? It’s part of a flower, what’s so special about it ?
You don’t use saffron every day, but you may want to know exactly why you pay $2.5 for 0.17 grams. Yes you read that right. We recently made paella and the saffron was easily the most expensive item on the ingredient list. And no, you can’t get true paella without saffron.
So we made it our mission to find out why saffron is so expensive, go through each point on the list, and try to understand what’s happening. So let’s get to it.
Table Of Content show
Why is saffron so expensive ?
Saffron is expensive because you need 150.000-200.000 stigmas for a single pound/400 gr of saffron. Each flower produces 3 stigmas, and has to be handpicked.
Aside from all this, saffron is not a fast crop, it reproduces slowly and has a very specific timeframe for harvesting. Early mornings in fall are when saffron blooms and is picked.
This all results in a very time-consuming crop that needs a lot of fussing over when harvest time rolls by. The flowers are in bloom only a couple of weeks, and have to be picked the moment they bloom. Saffron is very delicate and wilts the same day it blooms.
Of course, the final price of saffron is blown up. Labor and crop aside, it’s a very sought-after spice, and this drives the price higher that it could be reasonably accounted for.
Much like with gold, the fact that people want saffron makes the price go up, as middlemen compete with each other and then sell the saffron to be packaged even more expensive.
Alright, now let’s get all those reasons on a list, and explain each of them.
Read Also:Why Is Paella So Expensive?
Saffron is a very delicate flower
Saffron flowers are a very delicate thing. Its family – the Crocus – is native to the Mediterranean basin and Arabian Peninsula. All of the Crocus flowers are all delicate, but saffron is by far the most delicate.
Because of this saffron needs to be handled with lots of care, and shielded from too much sun, too much water, too much cold, and so on. The crop can easily wilt if it’s not well taken care of.
The good part is it’s a perennial plant, meaning it will spawn from the same bulb for years to come. Much like bananas, saffron is a clone of itself. There is no saffron in the wild, only related flowers.
The saffron we know and use is cloned by splitting the mother bulb in half and allowing it to grow into a new plant.
The time of day, weather, and season matter
When saffron is picked, things need to be just right. Moisture, cold, direct sunlight all need to be in balance. They’re picked in the early morning, when the sun isn’t hard and it’s still a little cold.
These flowers bloom only in the span of a couple of weeks, in the fall. And they don’t stay blooming and shining and upright for several weeks, no.
Some flowers bloom today, some tomorrow, some next week, some the week after that, and so on. Someone needs to keep an eye on them at all times.
In short it’s a very specific crop when it comes to harvesting and lots of care is needed.
You need thousands of flowers for a pound of saffron
Since saffron only has three stigmas, which are the saffron threads you get in those small plastic boxes. Obviously, in the box you have more than three, which means lots of flowers were picked.
In fact, a pound of saffron threads is made up of about 70.000 flowers, or approx. 200.000 stigmas. These final weighing is done with dried stigmas, which means the fresh ones first have to be dehydrated and then weighed.
Labor-intensive, difficult work
Labor is probably the biggest reason saffron has such a high price point. And for good reason too, because saffron pickers have a grueling schedule and the work is back-breaking.
Saffron flowers are pretty low on the ground, and there’s a point where you can’t keep bending down, and have to stay in that position. They’re bent over most of their work hours, much like strawberry pickers. This hurts their spines and is very difficult work. If you’ve ever picked anything in a field you know what we’re talking about.
There’s also the fact that when the workers enter the fields, they have to be quick to pick all the flowers, careful not to hurt the flowers themselves, and also not step on them. That’s a lot of responsibility.
And finally, when you think of how saffron blooms and wilts in the same day, you realize you have only a couple of hours to pick the entire field. This means dozens of workers in each field, all having to be very quick, precise, and careful not to hurt the flowers.
Most saffron comes from Iran (as in 90% of global production), and manual labor there is very cheap. Unfortunately the workers are pretty much exploited and a large profit is made off their work. The highest pay a saffron picker can get is $5, according to this interview for BusinessInsider.
Is saffron worth more than gold ?
No, saffron is less expensive than gold. A kilogram of saffron is around $5000 retail, while gold is nearly $61.000 per kilogram (as of November 2020)
Of course these prices may change but the ratio will largely be the same. Of all the spices and possible flavoring our there, saffron is by far the most expensive, being dubbed as ‘red gold’ in some places.
For comparison, a kg of premium vanilla beans is nearly $15.000, and a kg of fresh, whole nutmeg is $106.
Where does saffron come from ?
The exact origin of the saffron flower is not clear, but the region is from the Mediterranean basin to the Arabian peninsula, and Central Asia. You can find saffron grown in Spain, Greece, Austria, Iran, India, Morocco, America, and Turkey.
In fact the entire Eurasian belt grows saffron, to some degree. If you’re unsure, the Eurasian belt is an imaginary band the width of the Mediterranean basin, spanning from Spain all the way to China.
Most saffron these days comes from Iran (about 90%). The traditional and long-standing saffron producers are Iran, Spain, Greece, and India.
Saffron has been in use for thousands of years. It was used in medicine, as a dye, as a trading commodity, as a spice, as a flavoring, everything ! Examples of ancient saffron-infused items are:
- ancient Buddhist monk robes
- euphoria-inducing tea in ancient Persia
- perfumes and body washes
- weaved into clothing, among the threads
- herbal medicine
- foods like curries and stews
Nowadays saffron is mostly known for its culinary use, especially in savory foods. It’s still in use in medicine, as a dye, and in perfumes, though the topics aren’t covered by media as much as the culinary use.
How long does saffron last ?
Saffron threads can last up to 6 months in an airtight container. It needs to e kept in the dark, at a cool temperature, and the humidity must be very low.
When saffron is exposed to air for a long time it doesn’t rot or spoil, but it loses color and flavor.
What does saffron taste like ?
Saffron doesn’t have that amazing on its own. It’s actually a fairly bitter, hay-like flavor but combined with the other ingredients in a dish it simply enriches it. There’s no real way to describe it.
Possibly because of saffron’s impact on our brains – it gets people a bit euphoric – we’ve kept adding it to our dishes since pretty much forever.
It terms of smell saffron doesn’t shine on its own. It’s a fairly herbal, hay-like smell, but again it enriches and deepens any perfume it’s added to.
Ways to mimic saffron color
You can’t cheat saffron very easily, because the color and flavor it gives is pretty unique. However you ca try using a few tricks.
Turmeric provides a yellow color to foods. It’s a bit flat, so you will need some red in there for an orange hue. Paprika will help turn it orange, but the flavor will not be saffron.
Still, if you only want the color of saffron, you can try those. Make sure the paprika is very well ground, otherwise you might find red specks in the food.
Read Also:Why Is Fried Rice Yellow ?
Watch out for saffron imposters !
Some folks try to make a profit off of fake saffron. If you’ve never seed true saffron you might be fooled by it. A true saffron thread will have a bulbous end, and a whitish tip on the other end.
Fake saffron can be made from lily stigmas, or marigold petals. Just dried and rolled to resemble dried saffron threads. In a plastic bow and through packaging it might be difficult to notice.
Other ways to trick saffron is to get saffron-infused somethings, like baking powder or flour or sugar. Most of the time it’s just some turmeric added, for the color.
Be careful when buying saffron ! Appreciate all the effort the laborers put into picking them, and remember that despite the price you only need a little at a time.
Why real saffron is so expensive so expensive? ›
So what makes saffron so pricey? To put it plainly, it's an incredibly labor-intensive crop to harvest. Each saffron flower only produces three threads, so it can take thousands of flowers to get just one ounce of saffron.Is saffron the most expensive thing in the world? ›
By far, the most valuable spice in the world today is saffron. The dried stigmas of the saffron crocus plant can be purchased as saffron threads. A kilo of saffron costs, depending on the quality, 3,000-14,000 Euros. The Saffron crocus is a member of the Iridaceae family.Is saffron the most expensive food? ›
Saffron is the rarest, most expensive food on earth—more valuable than caviar, truffles, premium vanilla beans, real Japanese wasabi, and any other luxury food you can think of. There have been periods in history when saffron, by weight, was even more expensive than gold!What does saffron grow on and why is it so expensive? ›
Saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world, retailing for more than $500 an ounce. It is so expensive because it is an extremely labor-intensive crop. Crocus sativa, or the saffron crocus, flowers in the fall. Each flower has three tiny, threadlike stigmas in the center.Is McCormick saffron real saffron? ›
Saffron is prized for its golden yellow color, rich flavor and aroma. McCormick sources saffron from Spain for its superior quality – there are more than 250 hand-picked strands per bottle!What makes saffron so special? ›
Saffron is a powerful spice high in antioxidants. It has been linked to health benefits, such as improved mood, libido, and sexual function, as well as reduced PMS symptoms and enhanced weight loss. Best of all, it's generally safe for most people and easy to add to your diet.What are the 3 most expensive spices? ›
Today the world's three most expensive spices are Saffron, Vanilla and Mahlab. Originating from a flower called Crocus Sativus, the high price of saffron comes from the laborious harvest work of picking the stigmas delicately by hand to prevent damage and leaving them to dry.How much is 1g of saffron? ›
One gram of saffron threads equals roughly one loosely packed tablespoon. You only need a pinch of saffron threads (a heaping 1/4 teaspoon) for a paella that serves four. An essential in paella, saffron infuses the rice with a lovely aroma and flavor along with its soft amber glow.What is the 2nd most expensive spice in the world? ›
The world's second most expensive spice is vanilla.
While it originated in Mexico vanilla is famously cultivated in Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean. Of course, it's price doesn't compare to the outlandish cost of saffron but vanilla will set you back a few dollars.
Saffron is also grown in the United States, most notably in Pennsylvania. Culinarily, saffron is prized for both its aromatic flavor and beautiful golden color. The saffron spice is a common ingredient in Spanish dishes like seafood paella.
Is saffron worth more than gold? ›
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Produced from the stigma of the autumn flowering purple crocus (Crocus sativus), it has at points in history been worth three times the price of gold.Who buys the most saffron? ›
- China - 14.1% of the world imports ($31 million)
- Spain - 13.5% ($30 million)
- Saudi Arabia - 10.2% ($22 million)
- India - 9.74% ($21 million)
- USA - 7.72% ($17.2 million)
Most expensive spice
Across the world, saffron is used in products ranging from food to medicine and cosmetics. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) requires the stigmas of about 150,000 flowers and can easily sell for $3,000-$4,000.
The marigold aka the poor man's saffron. They can be used as a substitute for saffron due to its hue and flavor. The flowers can be used as a garnish, but they are also great in salads as they have a citrus flavor with a hint of tang and spice.Where is more than 90% of saffron produced? ›
90% of the country's saffron is produced in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and here it is mainly confined to Pulwama and Budgam districts10. Saffron production in J&K has been reported to decrease year by year (Table S1).Why is Trader Joe's saffron so cheap? ›
Less-expensive saffron powder is often made from sub-par saffron or old saffron. We suspect that this saffron from Trader Joe's is somewhere in between – old saffron that's past its prime but still has some kick.Does real saffron expire? ›
Saffron does not expire, but it does have a shelf life. Like other spices, it loses its strong aroma and flavour as it ages and doesn't get preserved. This priceless spice gets harmed by direct light, oxygen, dampness, and heat. With only a little exposure, your Saffron will quickly lose its optimum freshness.How can you tell the difference between real and fake saffron? ›
Fake saffron—which is often colored with red food coloring or other foreign substances —will either lack flavor entirely or have a bitter metallic taste. On the other hand, real saffron will have a strong floral scent and the will have a floral and earthy taste, the kind of flavor you're looking for saffron to impart.What are the 3 main components of saffron responsible for? ›
Saffron contains more than 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds mainly terpenes, terpene alcohol, and their esters. The bitter taste and an iodoform or hay-like fragrance are caused by chemicals picrocrocin and safranal.What saffron does to the brain? ›
Preclinical studies proved that saffron exerts its neuroprotective effects mostly via antioxidative stress, anti-neuroinflammation, anti-apoptosis and certain other related pathways. Clinical trials also confirmed that saffron could alleviate depressive and anxiety-like symptoms in both depression and anxiety patients.
Why do people love saffron? ›
Saffron is one of the most precious spices in the world. Used by ancient icons such as Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, saffron truly is a one of a kind spice. It has an extremely subtle, yet fragrant taste that is slightly sweet and floral. Saffron adds a layer of depth to any dish.What were 4 of the valuable spices? ›
- In earlier times, the prices of spices were astronomical. However, by the 19th century many people could afford spices because the spice monopolies had collapsed. ...
- Saffron. By far, the most valuable spice in the world today is saffron. ...
- Vanilla. ...
- Cardamom. ...
- Pepper. ...
What are the top two most popular spices in the world? Pepper and Mustard | By Block Eats | Facebook.What is the king of all spices? ›
Black Pepper is considered the 'king of spices' and rightfully so. Unlike its perennial companion, salt, which is easily available in any nook and corner of the world, the black pepper owes its origins to Kerala – a state in South India.How long does saffron last? ›
Store saffron in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to six months for maximum flavor. Saffron, like other herbs and spices, is sensitive to light, so wrap the packet in foil to protect it further. Saffron will not spoil, but it will lose increasingly more and more of its flavor with age.
For the best quality of saffron, choose saffron threads (not powder) that are dark red, with no yellow or orange present. This is Grade 1 or A+ saffron. Persian saffron has the most intense color and aroma, especially when compared to the more mild Spanish saffron. This is all red, Grade A, sargol saffron.What does saffron taste like? ›
Saffron has a subtle earthy-sweet flavor profile with a tinge of bitterness on the tongue that gives way to delicate floral and honey notes.What is the 3rd most expensive spice in the world? ›
Green cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla.Which spice keeps the stomach healthy? ›
Ginger. Ginger is a delicious spice that researchers believe can improves your gut health, and is particularly beneficial for your stomach and intestines. Ginger may help to settle an upset stomach, which is why it's often used to combat nausea.What are the 10 most expensive spices? ›
- Saffron. Saffron is derived from the stigmas of the crocus flower and is known for its intense, earthy flavor. ...
- Vanilla. ...
- Green Cardamom. ...
- Nutmeg. ...
- Black Pepper. ...
- Cloves. ...
- Turmeric. ...
- Star Anise.
How much saffron can 1 acre produce? ›
The average saffron yield is less than 4 pounds per acre. Arash is originally from Iran, which produces 90 percent of the saffron in the world.Do I need a license to sell saffron? ›
To sell spices, you must apply for a Business Establishment License (BEL) under the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (apply for fssai license). After acquiring BEL, you can start selling spices from your shop or stall in any local market.How much do saffron farmers make? ›
As a niche, “shoulder-season” crop that can be grown after the fall harvest, and with a high resale value—saffron fetches as much as $29,000 per kilogram (roughly $13,000 per pound)—it could be a boon for small farmers looking for another source of revenue.Why is saffron more expensive than gold? ›
At $65 per gram for the highest quality crop, Saffron can cost even more than the precious metal. It requires around 200,000 delicate red strands to be hand-picked from 70,000 Crocus sativa flowers for each pound.” Even back in Kashmir saffron farmers used to mention that it is labour intensive.How much is 1 gram of saffron worth? ›
Saffron from Kashmir, located between India and Pakistan, has been able to introduce itself to the world. Each gram of saffron there is worth about 80 to 250 rupees. If saffron belongs to Kashmir, its price will reach 500 Indian rupees per gram. For more information, see the price of saffron in India.How do I know if my saffron is real? ›
Once you've purchased saffron, there is a simple experiment you can perform to test your saffron's quality: Take a few saffron threads and soak them in hot (not boiling) water for 5 to 20 minutes. Fake saffron will quickly bleed out its artificial red dye and the threads will disintegrate.