Saffron has been known and appreciated since antiquity for its taste and medicinal properties. But do you really know why it is the most expensive spice in the world and is it really worth it?
In this article, we will explore the reasons saffron is expensive so next time you are paying a high price to buy a little saffron, you know what you are paying for!
Saffron is the dried red stigma or strings of a particular crocus flower that is used as an aromatic seasoning and coloring spice for both foods and drinks.
Saffron Crocus Sativus is a bulbous perennial plant belonging to the Iris family. It grows about 15-30 cm in height and blooms for only a couple of weeks between October and November. Each bulb produces 2-3 flowers and each flower has only 3 stigmas that will become the world famous spice.
Each stigma is 3 to 5 cm long and 0.5-1 mm wide. They are thinner at the top. While the exquisite petals and stamens are beautiful but they have no role or value in the spice production.
Just a few strands of Zaafaran as it is called in Iran, can infuse food with an intense golden yellow color, exotic aroma and distinctive flavor that is unmatched by anything else.
The world’s most popular Zaafaran dishes include Persian zereshk polo, French Bouillabaisse, Italian Milanese risotto, Spanish paella and Indian biryani.
It is used not only in cooking and baking, but also in medicines, perfumes and cosmetics!
This exotic spice is native to Iran but has also been cultivated in Europe and India in countries such as Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Kashmir. Iran is the largest supplier of Saffron as almost 90% of global market comes from Iran.
Saffron has a unique character and a sophisticated cultivation process that determine its price tag:
Obtaining Zaafaran is very labor intensive because the delicate crocus flowers must be handpicked before sunrise in a one month window from October to November. Then they are delivered to some shady rooms in order to pluck the stigmas on the same day. The yellow part of the stigma is removed immediately and the rest is sorted out. The stigmas are then dried in the sun or in a drying plant and are packed for distribution.
There are only 3 strands in each flower and almost 170,000 flowers have to be harvested and processed to produce just half a kilogram of dried saffron so understandably the spice comes at a high price, as high as gold!
The exotic aroma of Zaafaran is slightly floral with a warm undertone, more like freshly cut grass that is unmatched by any spice. It has a pungent taste like bitter honey that is distinctive among all spices. The golden yellow color that is resulted after use is rare for a spice!
These characteristics make saffron one of a kind spice that is favored by people all around the globe. The high demand and short supply naturally makes the price tag more expensive.
Modern scientific research shows that Zaafaran does have strong health benefits and can play a strong role in preventing diseases and curing illnesses.
Zaafaran stigmas contain several essential oils, the most important of which is safranal that releases the exotic aroma. Other volatile oils in the chemical composition of saffron are cineole, phenylethanol, pinene, borneol, geraniol, limonene, p-cymene, linalool and terpinene-4-oil.
This colorful spice also contains many non-volatile active ingredients such as α-crocin, a carotenoid compound that gives the spice its natural golden yellow color. There is picrocrocin too that creates the distinctive bitter taste. There are also other carotenoids including zeaxanthin, lycopene, α- and β-carotenes.
Both categories of chemicals are important antioxidants that help protect the human body against oxidative stress, inflammation, cancer and infections and act as immunomodulators.
This spice is also an excellent source of minerals such as copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of all cells and fluids in the body that help control heart rate and blood pressure. The human body uses manganese and copper as cofactors for the antioxidant enzymes and superoxide dismutase. Iron is important for the production of red blood cells and as a cofactor for cytochrome oxidase enzymes.
Zaafaran is also rich in many vitamins including vitamins A and C, folic acid, riboflavin, and niacin which are essential for optimal health.
These active ingredients in Zaafaran help with treatment and symptom management of many health problems such as:
⦁ Heart diseases
⦁ Lung problems
⦁ Gastrointestinal tract issues
⦁ Insulin resistance
⦁ Premenstrual syndrome
⦁ Insomnia and anxiety
⦁ Retinal degeneration
Saffron is packed with powerful compounds that have strong preventative and healing effects on human. That is why this delicate strand is so expensive!
Now that you know why saffron is so expensive, you need to know the real saffron from the fake because every luxury has a fake version!
Saffron is commercially available in 2 forms: stigma and powder. The stigma is sold in specialized spice stores but powder can be found in large supermarkets. Try buying whole dry stigmas instead of powdered form, as it is often easy to fake saffron in powder form. Choose a well-sealed container with an authentic brand name, with date of packaging and expiration clearly printed.
The fresh spice has a bright red color and when rubbed between two fingers, a very pleasant aroma is released and a golden yellow stain remains on the skin. Look for 2 to 4 cm long strands and avoid low quality products with grayish streaks or light spots.
Always buy reliable saffron brands from trusted stores. Check the origin and production date on the package and avoid cheap products at all cost. Try to smell the spice as real saffron has strong aroma that is recognizable even with the packaging.
Zaafaran is often faked with turmeric, calendula flowers, safflower and even cotton threads. It is even possible that ingredients such as starch, soda, salt, gypsum and ground red pepper are mixed with low-quality cheap ground Saffron!
For testing purposes, soak some of the spice in water, the adulterated saffron is tinted with synthetic dyes which will be released immediately in the water but it will not be a strong color. It is also light weight that floats on the surface while real saffron will sink.
One pinch of freshly ground Zaafaran is enough to enhance the flavor and color of any dish. It is a fairly versatile spice that can be used in both savory and sweet recipes.
Although whole threads can be added directly to the dishes but it is a better idea to crush them with a pestle & mortar and then soak them in small amount of warm water to get the best results.
There are many ways to use Saffron in the kitchen:
• Rice dishes such as Paella and risotto
• Soups and sauces
• Custards and ice creams
• Chicken dishes
• Marinades (in combination with garlic, thyme and vinegar)
• Bread dough
• Cake mixes
• Drinks such as Champagne (will be transformed into a golden elixir)
• Drinks such as Tea or coffee (chemically balances caffeine)
• Drinks such as Lassi (in combination with yogurt and fruits)
Saffron is one of the 6 most expensive products in the world because it is a rare spice cultivated in a few places. It has a very sophisticated cultivation process that is labor intensive. It is packed with powerful compounds that are strong anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. They can prevent many diseases and cure many health issues. Saffron also has distinctive aroma and taste that is unlike any other spice and cause a high demand in the world.
Iran is one of those places that produces 90% of the global saffron supply. This product is the highest quality with the most distinctive character. It has strongest health properties that turn it to a super food as well as a medicine. It is really worth it to buy Persian Zaafaran.
You can visit other articles in our website to learn more about Saffron and its journey from the farm to table.