Did you know that there’s a spice on Earth more valuable than truffles, wasabi, and even gold? You’ve likely seen it, tender red shreds of which you only need the tiniest amount to make a big impact on flavor. We’re talking, of course, about saffron.
It comes from the purple flowers of saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). It starts out as the bright orange stigma, which carries pollen as part of the flower’s female reproductive system, and later goes on to become the most valuable spice in the world. Why is it so expensive? In part, because it’s an absolute nightmare to harvest.
Saffron is harvested from the three stigmas in the center of each flower, and they have to be handpicked. This means a single pound of saffron can represent as many as 75,000 flowers. Add to that the fact that the flower is only in bloom in certain parts of the world for a few short weeks of the year and it becomes an even trickier operation.
Once picked, they are incredibly fragile and have to be handled with care, making the farming process even more complex and expensive. The stigmas are then transformed into the more familiar desiccated saffron form by being spread out on trays and dried slowly over charcoal fires. Again, this adds to the cost as it’s a time-consuming process that can’t be rushed.
The market rate for real saffron sits between $2,000 to $10,000 per pound, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there are several counterfeit alternatives that exist. Everything from dyed corn silk to flowers from safflower, beet fiber, and just plain old red bits of paper have historically been passed off as saffron, while ground saffron is often mixed with turmeric, bark, or paprika – which is an interesting spice in itself, as surprisingly few people seem to know what paprika's made of.
The key to authentic, high-quality saffron is in its aroma, which means it’s held to high standards during the production process and subpar stigmas won’t make it into the final spice. That aroma isn’t easy to maintain, either, so saffron has a short shelf life and must be stored properly.
So, is it worth it? At the end of all that, the world’s most expensive spice comes out as a pretty versatile and impressive plant product. It’s sought after in cooking for its slightly sweet, earthy taste that brings a distinct aroma and flavor to food. It can also make food look better by dying it golden and is something you’ll see in rice dishes like biriyani as well as certain desserts.
Fortunately, while it packs an intimidating price tag, a little goes a long way when it comes to the world’s most expensive spice, so tuck in!*
*in extreme moderation