Saffron is famously the most expensive spice mostly due to its rare and delicate flower source: the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) of the iris family. One strand of saffron is derived from three crocus stems. In other words, it can take 4,500 crocus stems to comprise just 1 ounce of saffron.
We can blame saffron’s high cost and limited availability on how difficult and labor intensive it is to cultivate, which is performed today as it was centuries ago: by hand. The delicate removal of the strands to create saffron is usually performed by elderly village women in or near Persia, where it has always been found.
Saffron is also a genetically monomorphic clone; or rather, the version we consume today is a distant cloned relative of the version used centuries ago. This is because the Crocus sativus is male and cannot be reproduced on its own. It must be manually created through “divide and set” propagation.
It’s a lot of work to make saffron, but every ounce is worth it.
Just one strand can color up to 10 gallons of water. Tibetan monks famously used just saffron strands to die their robes.
Hippocrates was writing about saffron as relief for coughs, colds, indigestion, insomnia, scarlet fever, uterine bleeding, and heart trouble in the classical age of ancient Rome and Greece. Saffron has been used for centuries to treat and prevent a variety of illnesses, mostly in Asian and Indian cultures where it was more readily found and available.
Today, saffron can cost up to $50 million to produce in just one year. Thankfully, saffron can remain potent and stay fresh for a few years as long as it’s kept in an airtight storage compartment.
Saffron is well known for its juxtaposition of a slightly bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and earthy flavor. It’s an all-purpose spice used in food, for fragrance, to dye clothing, and for medicinal purposes. Beyond its traditional uses, scientists are discovering an abundance of saffron health benefits.
Saffron Health Benefits
Saffron is exceptionally high in manganese. Just 1 ounce has 400% of the daily recommended dosage. Most recipes, however, only call for about half a teaspoon. A little goes a long way with this delicate spice.
Saffron also has a large quantity of vitamin C, B6, potassium, and iron. All four of these vitamins/minerals are essential to boosting the immune system and providing healthy metabolic function. Saffron also has over 150 volatile compounds full of nutritive properties.
However, the most exciting component of saffron seems to be the crocin, a carotenoid chemical compound found within saffron. The crocin is of great interest to the medical community. Crocin is believed to be responsible for producing saffron’s vibrant orangy-red color.
In several clinical trials, crocin has been shown to possess many antioxidants that are helpful for reducing and preventing the effects of free radicals. Crocin also shows promising effects on the prevention or treatment of cancer.
This seemingly magical component keeps surprising scientists by presenting new and potentially viable preventive care for the four big As:
Saffron has also been shown to impact several other potential health problems including:
- Coronary artery disease
- Memory enhancement
- Learning difficulties
- Eye health including blood flow and retinal function
And saffron acts as a:
- Blood pressure regulator
- Natural appetite suppressant
- Anti-cancer and natural cytotoxic (which basically means that saffron can be dangerous to living cancer cells)
While much of the budding saffron science is still new there’s a lot of potential further information that is being grasped and understood.
How to Spot Fake Saffron
Because of its high price and high quality of nutrients, it’s no surprise that there are imposters sullying the saffron market by producing genetically modified versions that are far less superior.
Usually, it’s some random strand of fiber, died a red color meant to fool the otherwise uneducated who are willing to pay a high price for a spice they think is worth it. Don’t be fooled!
The best place to get fresh, original saffron is at a local specialty grocery store where you can speak to the grocer about their spice source. While most grocery stores carry a version of saffron, be wary. It is believed that there are far more imposters of saffron than actual real saffron available in the market. Here’s how to tell if your saffron is the real deal.
Real saffron is a deep red color, that should not have variance within a batch. In other words, if you are looking at several ounces of saffron, they should all look mostly the same. There should not be any more orange or lighter red hues mixed in with the deep red ones.
You can also test this by taking a few strands, rubbing them in a white napkin and assessing if the color rubs off as yellow or if it doesn’t rub off at all. If it’s yellow, it’s the real thing.
Real saffron should smell slightly sweet and somewhat earthy, like a mixture of honey and hay. If you cannot detect a smell at all, you may be smelling the fake saffron.
Drop a few strands in a cup of water. If it’s the real deal, the color should change to yellow when mixed with water. If it turns red, it’s fake. If you’re at a market and need to do a quick test, you can also suck a little on one strand and spit onto a white napkin, if the color is yellow, then you’re looking at the real deal.
How to Get More Saffron in Your Diet
While it is considerably more expensive than most any other spice in your spice drawer, a very little saffron goes a long way. Most recipes call for only a few strands, or for a small pinch of the dried, ground spice.
Saffron can be added to smoothies to provide a beautiful golden color (and also up the magnesium content!). Saffron is delicious mixed with rice or in any curries or Thai dishes.
It’s important to note that the actual threads may not be added to a dish (unless specified). Instead, the strands are often soaked in water, releasing the color, aroma, scent, and all that delicious crocin with it, creating saffron water. The water is then added to the dish for flavor and/or coloring.
If you are using saffron in a dish that is high in a liquid (such as a soup, tea, salad dressing, sauce, etc.) adding the strands directly into the fluid will provide the same effect as allowing them to soak in water.
If you’re an avid DIY ice cream maker, you can make saffron ice cream! It’s best when combined with another light, sweet, or pleasant spice such as vanilla, honey, or lavender. Perfect for spring and summer.
If you’re nervous about cooking with this pricey delicate spice, another option is to purchase a high-quality saffron supplement, which is usually sold as a highly concentrated version of saffron in extract form.
If you’re looking to maximize your magnesium or other saffron health benefits, a daily saffron supplement will ensure that you get the most for your money. In a price-by-price comparison, it can be more cost effective to take a daily supplement than to add real, authentic saffron into your everyday meal planning and consumption.