Saffron is the single most expensive food on earth by weight, but why is golden-hued spice so costly? "Saffron's price all comes down to labor and how the plant is grown," says Alex Wilkens, the in-house spice expert at The Spice House. Saffron comes from the crocus sativus, a variety of crocus that's difficult to grow. "Each crocus flower produces only three red threads, and it takes about 70,000 threads for a pound of saffron. The flowers bloom once a year and the process is labor intensive as each thread is removed by hand," Wilkens explains. When you want to add saffron to your spice cabinet, follow these tips on how to buy the best version of the spice. Plus, learn how to put it to great use in your kitchen.
"Start by buying from a source that you know and trust," advises Wilkens. Due to its high price, saffron is subject to spice fraud. Ground saffron could be cut with other spices, or honey or oil could be added to threads to make them weigh more. To make sure you are getting the best saffron, follow Wilken's buying tips: First, buy whole threads when possible. For the highest grade saffron, look for a jar of all red stigmas, also known as threads. The next grade down will have another part of the flower attached to the red threads called the style. This adds in a white or yellow color. The style doesn't add any flavor, just weight, bringing down the price. Next, consider its scent (if you can). The aroma should be sweet, honeyish, metallic, or even hay-like. Last but not least, look for origin. Most saffron in the U.S. market comes from Spain or Afghanistan, but saffron is also grown in other countries around the same latitude, such as Iran, Greece, and Italy. Spanish saffron is most commonly available in the U.S.
How to Store Saffron
Just like any spice, store saffron in an airtight container in a cool dry place, like your spice cabinet. If you'll need to store it for a longer period of time, place the airtight container in the freezer or refrigerator.
How to Cook With Saffron
The unique flavor of saffron shines in risottos, kebabs, stews, paella, biryani, and many other dishes. Even desserts can benefit from the addition of saffron. Case in point? Our Semolina Coconut Cake and these Brûléed Saffron Custards. The good news is that you don't need much saffron to flavor a dish—just a pinch, which is about 12 threads, will add lots of flavor. The best way to infuse saffron flavor into any meal is to steep the threads. This draws out saffron's flavor and bright sunny color. To steep, soak one pinch of saffron in a quarter cup of warm liquid for 10 minutes.
Many recipes call for grinding the threads in a mortar and pestle before adding them to the liquid. "Rather than grinding the threads, just break them up with your hands," says Wilkens. "If you are using really good saffron, the water will turn bright yellow fast."