Ounce by ounce, saffron is one of the world’s most expensive foods, if not the most expensive food. The riotous yellow, heady spice found primarily in Mediterranean, North African, and Middle Eastern dishes can run anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per pound. (By comparison, highly prized Japanese Wagyu runs only in the low $100s per pound, and even the most luxurious Osetra caviar tops out around the $2,000 per pound mark.) Fortunately, a very little goes a very long way, and mere fractions of grams of saffron can infuse a variety of dishes from the every-day to the all-day with its vivid, flavorful character. It will seem to stick out in an expensive way in your local spice aisle, but low double digits for a bit of saffron seem a small price to pay for the kind of luxury and nuance it imparts. Here’s everything you may need to know about incorporating cooking with saffron, and with it the occasional night in Tunisia, into your home-cooking habitude.
The “threads” or strands of saffron are actually the stamen of a flower—crocus sativus—that thrives in the hot climates listed above. It’s not rarity of the flowers themselves that makes saffron so expensive, small geographical range notwithstanding, but their brief calendar window for blooming, low yield, and human labor cost needed for harvesting their fragile reproductive bits. (We’re talking painstaking work with tweezers here, not magical stamen extracting machines.) The crocus sativus stamen are then dried and packaged, and should look like fine crimson, petal-like trumpets with a delicate yellow tendril attached.
In the manner of some of the world’s most complex food products—Chartreuse, truffles, etc.— saffron’s precise flavor is difficult to describe. It tastes like saffron, which nothing else tastes like, which is why it’s awesome. It is at once, smoky, heady, and bright. Floral, but in a musty way. Earthy, but sweet. In spite of all this complexity, however, saffron plays remarkably well with a wide variety of other foods, from rice and pasta, to vegetables, to meat, and even dessert. Says Azita Mehran, Persian cook and author of the blog Turmeric & Saffron: “In Persian cuisine, saffron is used in both savory and sweet dishes such as in most polow (rice) dishes, tahdig (crispy bottom layer of rice), and many khoresh (stew) dishes, grilled chicken, sholeh zard (saffron rice pudding), as well as in saffron sherbet or saffron tea.” That it bears a biological similarity to vanilla—shout out to the stamen—makes it function in a similar way; it doesn’t need to take center stage, but helps to amplify the complex qualities of every other ingredient it touches. Not to mention that deep, cacophonous color. Talk about a flavor megaphone. Not since Alice’s Wonderland “Eat Me” cakes has food had such an obvious invitation.
The good news is, you probably don’t have to look too hard for saffron no matter where you live, but note that real, high quality saffron is going to require a little coin. If you find something that seems like a great deal, back away. This will not afford you the saffron conversion experience you are seeking. Even conventional supermarket brands should run between $15 to $20 for a fraction, as in hundredths, of an ounce. (And you thought that much for a half a pound of pine nuts was a lot.) Better yet, try well-reputed spice markets or online retailers where you can have knowledge of the pedigree of the saffron you are purchasing. Iranian saffron is highly sought-after, and of the highest quality, but harder to come by. Spanish and Afghan are more readily available, and still very high quality. Advises Mehran: “When purchasing saffron you should look for a dark red color, subtle floral smell and a slightly sweet taste and never buy ground saffron.” Ground “saffron” is a bit of a conman: likely a hodgepodge including turmeric and smoked paprika. (Which is hardly a terrible idea for a spice blend, it just ain’t saffron.)
A better question is, how shouldn’t you use saffron? As mentioned, saffron isn’t picky about its dance partners, and has the deft skill of a master to make everyone around it look good. Good entry points for saffron cookery are rice-based, homey, and comforting: Persian Rice, Risotto Milanese, or a Spanish Paella Mixta. Mehran offers the following procedure for getting the most out of saffron for cooking: “The best way to use saffron is to take a tiny pinch (of the strands) and grind it into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Transfer the powdered saffron into a small bowl, add 2-3 tablespoons of hot water (or hot liquid such as broth or stock), give it a gentle stir, cover and let it bloom for at least five minutes to bring out the color and aroma before adding it to your dish.” Toasting the saffron powder in olive oil on low heat will also help infuse it throughout whatever savory food you are preparing.
As with any dried herb or spice, the shelf life for maximum flavor is relatively short, but you can extend it by keeping it in an airtight container, and “keep it in a cool and dry place away from sunlight,” advises Mehran. Given its expense, you’ll want to get the most out of it as you can.
“Saffron ice cream might sound unusual but the taste is heavenly and is a must try! Traditional Persian bastani is an aromatic saffron and rosewater ice cream with bits of frozen cream topped with chopped pistachios.” Get Mehran’s recipe for Saffron Ice Cream, or try some other sweet preparations such as Saffron Pear Cake, or Saffron Panna Cotta with Bitter Honey.
Pamela Vachon is a freelance writer based in Astoria, NY whose work has also appeared on CNET, Cheese Professor, Alcohol Professor, and Diced. She is also a certified sommelier, voiceover artist, and an avid lover of all things pickled or fermented.