threading the needle



I had never really put much thought into the effort behind the spices I so liberally use in my kitchen. I may even be known to double or triple the stated recipe amounts. One-eighth teaspoon of cinnamon? Make that half. A pinch of salt? How about three? But, there is one special spice that gives me pause before I think about adding more than the tiniest pinch: saffron.

Costing up to $10,000 per kilogram, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. These crimson threads, also known as ‘red gold’, have a distinctively musky, haylike aroma and impart an orangey-red hue when rehydrated. From ancient palace frescoes depicting a goddess with saffron to Cleopatra’s addition of it to her milk baths, this spice has long been recognized for its opulence.

But what makes saffron so costly? A very limited season and extensive labor are responsible for that price tag. Harvesting season is in late autumn and lasts only about two weeks. The mauve-colored saffron flowers are picked by hand in the early morning before they have a chance to fully open. Workers then carefully pluck the red stigmas, or saffron threads (of which there are only three) - a task that cannot be done mechanically.

To put saffron’s labor of love into perspective, more than 6,000 flowers and over 12 hours of labor are needed to produce just 1 ounce of saffron!

There really is no spice quite like it. Sure - there are imitations, as is typical with expensive commodities. Turmeric, marigold petals, and safflower - all wonderful spices in their own rights - have historically been used to adulterate saffron. However, most imitations lack the unique taste and/or odor that saffron provides. True saffron is distinct in its composition, hue, and aroma, which are most apparent when steeping it (more on that below).

Sadly, I can’t remember the first time I used these delicate red strands, but I do recall how there was some air of royalty about them. Even now, when I buy some at my local Indian market, the request can only be made at the cashier. He or she disappears into a back room with a manager and returns with a little clear box with gold lettering, encasing just the amount I requested. It’s hard not to feel a little special after that!

*This article is by food blogger and Selefina creator Rena Sak (A Girl and a Spoon). At Selefina, we believe that cooking should be about exploring and experimenting with new ingredients. We hope having our creators share what they've learned about a spice will inspire others to go on their own journey.

Generally, deeper red and uniformly long, thin strands indicate quality saffron, such as the super negin grade from Iran.

The saffron threads we use come from the saffron flower, known botanically as Crocus sativus. The plant itself is a bulbous perennial in the iris family which blooms in autumn — hence the late autumn harvest. Up to five saffron flowers can grow on each corm, or stem, and each flower contains three red stigmas and three yellow stamens (which are often dyed in saffron adulterations).

Fun Fact: Saffron is a sterile plant that requires some human help to regrow. Parts of the corm are broken off and must be replanted to grow a new plant.

Today’s saffron is native to several parts of the sunny Mediterranean and is thought to have originally been cultivated in Greece. Almost ninety percent of today’s saffron production comes from Iran, while a fair amount is produced in Afghanistan and Spain. The region of Kashmir, Morocco, and Greece are other known minor producers (amongst others), but there are boutique and microscale growers all over the world.

Various saffron cultivars have resulted in characteristically distinct saffron threads, from the stigmas themselves, such as thickness, length, and color, to how they are picked and processed. Importantly, the amount of yellow style picked along with the red stigma largely impacts the final product: more style means less flavor due to fewer saffron threads. These result in differing levels of pungency, aroma, and coloring (and, of course, price). Some countries and regions have their own trade names, levels of quality or grades, and protections to help identify the different types of saffron.

Generally, deeper red and uniformly long, thin strands indicate quality saffron, such as the super negin grade from Iran. However, even with an understanding of top-quality saffron, regional variations may yield slight differences that some would still qualify as great — just make sure it's real!

Saffron is a favorite in South Asian, North African, and European cuisines: e.g. Spanish "paella valenciana"; Italian "risotto alla milanese"; Swedish "lussebulle"; Persian "bastani" (ice cream).

Evidence shows saffron cultivation going as far back as the Early Bronze Age. It played a significant role in ancient Greco-Roman culture, especially amongst the wealthy. It was particularly used in perfumery and deodorizing; one could find saffron scattered like potpourri in public places and along the streets.

To the east, ancient Persia was a substantial cultivator of saffron, and its use was extended into clothing, drinks, and foods. Alexander the Great and his armies were purported to have enjoyed Persian saffron in their teas and on their rice.

Saffron's journey into India was, according to one record, a result of Persian rulers’ wishes to stock their new gardens throughout their empire. The transplanting of the bulbs in the new environment produced the now-prized Kashmiri variety. Saffron has consequentially been used heavily throughout the region for cooking, wellness, and religious purposes, especially for holidays.

The cultivation of saffron declined in Europe for several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Moors, however, helped revive it as they moved from North Africa throughout the Iberian Peninsula, as well as southern France and Italy. Even England became a noted producer of it, with the town of Saffron Walden so named due to its trade.

Today, saffron is a favorite in South Asian, North African, and European cuisines. It is a popular spice for rice dishes such as biryani and pilau; the Spanish paella valenciana and Italian risotto alla milanese rely on it. A delicious variant of the North African chermoula herb relish/marinade includes it in its recipe. Saffron is also used for sweets, including saffron buns like the Swedish lussebulle, the Persian bastani (saffron ice cream), and the Hyderabadi shahi tukda.

Steeping, or blooming, saffron is the much agreed-upon method of extracting as much flavor as possible from the threads, and it allows for even distribution throughout the dish.

Saffron’s main flavor compounds, picrocin which gives it that earthy and musky note, and safranal, which lends the haylike, honeyed notes, are unique to saffron. Although saffron is a bit of an investment, a little goes a long way — and learning how to release the flavor can be helpful.

Steeping, or blooming, saffron is the much agreed-upon method of extracting as much flavor as possible from the threads, and it allows for even distribution throughout the dish.

    Try these methods
    Tip: for faster release, grind the threads in a mortar and pestle
  • Steep in hot/warm liquid: use water, milk, or stock; steep for 15 minutes and up to 24 hours
  • Bloom with ice cubes: place a few ice cubes to melt atop the saffron threads for what is believed to be a gentler and more concentrated extraction
  • Add or use alcohol: add a bit of complementary alcohol, such as wine, to extract the lesser compounds
  • Use milk: bloom in warm milk, where the fat can help dissolve some of the lesser flavor molecules

Steeping can be done early on during cooking, such as in a risotto which has enough liquid and cooking time to bring out the flavors. Other recipes may add it closer to the end, such as pouring the steeping liquid and saffron over rice for the final steam.

    Get Creative with Saffron
  • Mix ground saffron with oil to rub onto root vegetables, like carrots, potatoes, or sweet potatoes, before roasting (for more flavor, parboil veggies in saffron-infused water!)
  • Infuse into sauces, such as a lemon cream sauce for chicken, or a mint yogurt sauce for lamb
  • Pair with white fish and shellfish, like in this Spiced Shrimp with Beurre Blanc recipe
  • Use saffron in a poaching liquid, such as a vanilla and saffron liquid for poached pears
  • Have fun infusing it into milk-based desserts, like a tres leches cake, bread pudding or a flan

a quick collection of

Since the compounds of saffron are unique, choose spices that complement their flavor notes. Several spices will overlap these, meaning just one addition can create beautiful complexity.

    For more...
  • Muskiness add turmeric or paprika
  • Haylike Notes add coriander, cardamom, or bay leaf
  • Floral/Honey Notes add vanilla or cinnamon (try steeping with hibiscus and lavender, too!)
  • Woody Notes add sumac or caraway
Ground turmeric will impart your dish with a vibrant yellow hue; it will also imbue a mild earthy-sweet flavor with a slight edge of pepperiness. Famously found in curry spice blends.
2.5 oz - JAR$5
2.5 oz - REFILL$4
10 oz - REFILL$14
This version of Spanish paprika has only a very mild amount of heat, with a slightly sweet and slightly smoky flavor. It is a deep red color with flecks of yellow and has a smooth, fine granular texture.
2 oz - JAR$7
2 oz - REFILL$6
8 oz - REFILL$15
A versatile spice with a bright citrusy flavor. Coriander seed is found in dishes from many cultures: Tex-Mex, Indian, Middle Eastern, etc. Whole seeds are also found in pickling spices.
1 oz - JAR$5
1 oz - REFILL$4
4 oz - REFILL$13
green pods
whole pods
Aromatic and flavorful, whole green cardamom pods can be lightly crushed to further enhance flavor in cooking.
1.3 oz - JAR$10
1.3 oz - REFILL$9
6 oz - REFILL$24
grade a
Whole vanilla bean pods are long, thin, and pliable. They have a rich, dark brown color with a smooth and shiny surface and have an inviting fragrance that is sweet, floral, and slightly spicy.
1 bean - GLASS VIAL (1 CT)$8
3 beans - GLASS VIAL (3 CT)$16
1 bean - GLASS VIAL (1 CT) $8
Ground cassia cinnamon's spicy, warm flavor and aroma star in many homespun fall and winter recipes. Cassia is dominant variety of cinnamon in America.
2 oz - JAR$8
2 oz - REFILL$7
8 oz - REFILL$24
Caraway seed is a small, crescent-shaped seed with a distinctive earthy aroma and a warm, slightly spicy flavor with a hint of bitterness.
1.5 oz - JAR$4
1.5 oz - REFILL$3
6 oz - REFILL$9
Tangy and floral, hibiscus is used in beverages the world over and adds rich red color.
0.7 oz - JAR$5
0.7 oz - REFILL$4
4 oz - REFILL$10

recipes that use
a sweet treat recipe using:
by Shibi Thomas
a sweet treat recipe using:
by Ramyaa Narayanan
Iberian Infusion Spiced Shrimp
with Beurre Blanc
an appetizer recipe using:
by Rena Sak
Thandai Drink
with nuts and saffron
a drink recipe using:
by Jayalakshmi Rangarajan
Almond Halwa
(Badam Halwa)
a sweet treat recipe using:
by Jayalakshmi Rangarajan
a sweet treat recipe using:
by Sheri Silver


A few last words: Saffron is often isolated to specific cuisines, and those cuisines have indeed earned those rights with their mastery of it. However, the uniqueness of its flavor compounds and steeping power make it a spice that I believe can be so much more. Its ability to almost equally lift a savory or sweet dish puts it in a special category. Don’t be turned off by its descriptions of “haylike” aroma or “metallic” tang. They may not necessarily sound appealing, but they can do some magic to the right dish and with the right pairings. — Rena Sak

Farrimond, Stuart. The Science of Spice: Understand Flavor Connections and Revolutionize Your Cooking, DK, 2018.
“Why Real Saffron Is so Expensive”, Noble Prize, Accessed 26 January 2024
"History of Saffron", Wikipedia, Accessed 26 January 2024
"How to Use Saffron", Serious Eats, Accessed 26 January 2024
"Saffron Trade", Wikipedia, Accessed 26 January 2024
Spencer, WG."Saffron", Wikipedia, Accessed 26 January 2024
"Use of Saffron", Wikipedia, Accessed 26 January 2024