Saffron is considered the rarest and most expensive spice in the world, costing more than $500 an ounce. Why is this tiny spice so expensive? It all has to do with how much labor is involved in harvesting the saffron crocus flowers where the spice comes from.
Saffron has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used it as a perfume, and the Chinese, who used it in medicine. The spice is used today in cooking and as a clothing dye. The majority of saffron comes from Iran, which is the largest producer of saffron in the world at over 90% saffron production worldwide. Saffron is also produced in India, Spain, France, and Italy.
The spice comes from the crocus sativa or the saffron crocus flower. It produces flowers in the fall, but the spice does not come from the petals of the flower. Instead, it comes from the stigma, the pollen germinating part. There are three stigmata in each flower, and they are removed along with the red pistils at the end. They are dried and put into sealed, airtight containers.
The reason saffron is so expensive is that it takes more than 80,000 flowers, all picked by hand, to equal one pound of saffron. The flower is so delicate that handpicking the stigmas from the flower is the only way it can be done. About 370 to 470 hours of labor are needed to harvest one pound of saffron.
Even though saffron goes from $7 to $15 a gram, not much is needed in cooking to get the desired flavor. The unique flavor of saffron comes from the chemicals safranal and picrocrocin, and it’s used in dishes such as bouillabaisses and risottos, for example. Some classic recipes where saffron is used are saffron chicken, Spanish paella, and tachin, a Persian saffron rice recipe.