Saffron is cooking’s golden child—literally! Its deep orange hue brings a vibrant color and flavor to any dish. It’s also the most expensive spice in the world. By the 16th century, it cost as much as gold and today, top-quality saffron will run you up to $10,000 a pound.
But what exactly is the spice that Cleopatra was said to use in her bathwater and launched a fourteen-day war in 1374? And what are the options for those of us who want the flavor without the price tag?
What Is Saffron? Why Is It So Expensive?
Saffron is made from the saffron crocus, a purple flower that blooms in autumn and can grow almost anywhere in the world. But while the plants might be geographically adaptable, they’re very particular: the flowers only bloom for one to three weeks each year and must be hand-picked. To produce a single gram of saffron requires roughly 150 flowers and a significant amount of labor.
Pricey? Absolutely. But a gram of saffron goes a very long way. This Shrimp & Cod Stew in Saffron Broth calls for only 1/4 teaspoon of saffron threads.
Besides adding complex flavors to a wide variety of dishes, saffron has also been celebrated for its health benefits. In the 14th century, the herb was used as a remedy against the Black Death. Now, modern researchers say saffron might be able to improve everything from insomnia to digestive discomfort and immune function.
How to Use Saffron
Saffron is at the top of its game in rice dishes like paella, but can be a succulent addition to desserts, too. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if vanilla is included, saffron will thrive! Even a small amount adds fragrant flavor and a burst of golden color to brighten up your dish. It can either be the star of the show or added in combination with other spices to provide sweet flavor and depth.
To get the most color and taste, soak the saffron threads in a water or broth before cooking for at least thirty minutes, and add the infused liquid right before you serve.
Pro Tip: Avoid using wooden utensils, which can absorb some of the flavor.
Can I Substitute for Saffron?
Yes! Luckily, saffron has a less expensive substitute: turmeric. The golden root—a member of the ginger family—can brighten up dishes with a similar vibrant hue and is the wellness industry’s current sweetheart for its anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting ability.
Use turmeric more sparingly than saffron, though. Saffron has a subtler flavor, and you want to make sure turmeric’s acrid notes are in perfect proportion to the other flavors in your dish. Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian recommends combining 1/4 teaspoon turmeric with 1/2 teaspoon paprika to achieve a taste as close to saffron as possible.