Inside the Spice Cabinet: Saffron

updated May 2, 2019
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Saffron is responsible for that distinctive bright yellow color and flavor of Italian risotto milanese, French bouillabaisse, Spanish paella, and Indian biryanis. Like truffles, some people find saffron completely intoxicating and addictive. But what is it, why is it the most expensive spice out there, and is it really worth it?

What Is Saffron?

Taste: Sweet, bitter
Most Popular Use: Rice, vegetables, baked goods

Saffron is the dried orange-red stigmas of a particular kind of crocus flower. There are only 3 stigmas in each flower, and you have to harvest them carefully by hand just as the flower is opening. It takes almost 70,000 crocus flowers to produce just one pound of dried saffron. And as such, it comes with a pretty high price tag.

Saffron has a very subtle flavor and aroma — some say it’s floral, some say it’s like honey, and some would just say pungent. The flavor can be hard to nail down and described. If you’re going for authenticity in dishes like paella and bouillabaisse, you’ve got to have saffron. There’s really no substitute for its flavor.

When buying saffron, look for threads that are uniformly long and have an eye-popping color. Don’t bother with broken saffron, saffron powder, or threads that look dull and dusty, they’re not worth the cost.

This is definitely one of those spices where it’s worth it to pay more. So-called “bargain” saffron is probably very old or mixed with saffron styles (another part of the crocus) or marigold flowers.

So Is It Worth the Cost?

Saffron can be a contentious ingredient. Those going for authenticity would never make a classic saffron-based recipe without it, and those with sensitive palates would argue that it adds a unique flavor that you can’t find anywhere else. To them, that little pinch of saffron makes and breaks the dish, so it’s worth the high cost.

But there are those out there who aren’t as worried about exact flavor replication and just want to approximate the yellow glow without spending a fortune, so they choose a substitute like turmeric instead.

How To Use Saffron

You only need a few threads to season and color an entire dish. Add them directly to a dish or steep the threads in a bit of the cooking liquid. Saffron is commonly used in paella, bouillabaisse, risotto, other rice dishes, and in various European baked goods.

Recipes for Cooking with Saffron