Why is saffron expensive?
The flower – Crocus sativus aka saffron crocus – was domesticated in the Mediterranean area. It has long been cultivated in the Kashmir region and Iran. Saffron has always been an expensive spice. Very expensive. During different periods, saffron as a spice has been worth even more than gold. Its high price is hinged on the labour-intensive harvesting methods. Going from flower to flower, bent over, pickers would need to gather 200’000 saffron threads in order to collect only 450 g / 1 lb of red-brick spice. That’s over 40 hours of hard work and 70’000 flowers that needed to be hand-picked to get the right amount of sought-after culinary ingredient. That is what makes saffron so pricy.
The flip side of its cost is the temptation for counterfeits. False saffron spice is so common that you can actually never be sure that you are getting a real thing in your local stores. Without proper knowledge and awareness, you can easily be misled into buying an adulterated version of spice spiked with oils or molasses added to increase the total weight or a completely fake spice like dyed corn threads, coconut filaments, and shredded paper.
Though even real saffron is not all of the same quality. The value and price depend on the relative amount of red and yellow inside a spice pack. The highest quality saffron is called sargol (in Iran) or coupé (in Spain) – it consists of only red parts. The lower the grade the more yellowness the spice will contain. The lowest quality saffron is called konge (in Iran) and sierra (in Spain). It includes only yellow threads which is not a bad thing per se. Even this grade still has its famous aroma but lacks the colouring potential.
Paint it golden
Saffron is a very potent colourant. Adding as little as ¼ of a teaspoon will turn 2 cups of white rice into a gorgeous golden-coloured dish. The spice is added to universally famous Iranian jeweled rice, Italian risotto, Spanish paella. Of course, not only rice dishes benefit from saffron. Soups, porridges, noodles, sauces, stews, egg dishes – all become painted into lovely gilded preparations that are created to bring joy to the table.
One of the greatest ideas for utilizing saffron (besides cooking rice dishes) is to turn regular mayo into golden sauce that everybody wants to smear all over the food. Put a pinch of saffron into a small bowl and add 1 Tbsp of hot water to it. Wait until the water turns golden. Place 1 egg yolk, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 tsp of Dijon mustard, half of the juiced lemon into a hand blender beaker and blitz everything until smooth. Start slowly adding 200 ml of olive, at first, a little drizzle, then increase the stream (keeping the blender running). When you have thick shiny mayo, sprinkle it with salt, pepper and add the saffron water to turn everything into golden sauce. Eat with soft-boiled eggs for breakfast or add to your fried potatoes, toasts, salads.