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Exploring Saffron, World's Most Expensive Spice + 5 Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.


The Harvest of Saffron Begins Before Dawn

There is a slight chill in the air; the ambient temperature is about 12 degrees Celsius. It is the first day of October and the day is new; the time is 5:00 a.m.

Sunrise will begin in about one hour, but the women are already crouching in the fragrant fields, beginning the harvest. Soon the monochromatic dawn will give way to a panorama of dazzling colors—golden soil, brilliant blue skies, and a field of rich purple. The workers will toil for 12 hours, but the gleaning must be quick. The sun’s warmth will wilt the blossoms, so there is an urgency to retrieve the two-inch tall crocus flowers. But that is just the beginning.

Saffron crocus blooming in a field, ready for harvest

Saffron crocus blooming in a field, ready for harvest

After the blossoms are plucked from the bulb, there are still many more hours of labor ahead. Each flower is grasped not by machine but by hand. The flower is discarded . . . after the three fragile red-orange stigmas are carefully removed by hand with tweezers. Yes, just three per flower—225,000 stigmas will result in one pound of saffron spice.

There are 75 varieties of crocus, but only one, the Crocus sativus (sativus is Latin for cultivated) produces saffron.

Why Is Saffron So Highly Valued?

Saffron is grown in Spain, India, and Greece, but the dominant producer is Iran, where 90 percent of the world’s harvest is gathered, mostly by women, who toil 12-hour days for a maximum of $5 per day. The growing season is short, beginning in late September and ending in early December.

Why is this spice so highly treasured?

The saffron crocus has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, originating near Persia (present-day Iran). Although today it is recognized for the exotic flavors and colors it imparts to Mediterranean dishes, in ages past it was favored for its purported medicinal qualities.

  • Alexander the Great is said to have used saffron on his campaigns through Persia using it as an antiseptic to heal battle wounds.
  • In Northeast Sri Lanka, the Tamil people have used it for more than 2,000 years as a cure for headaches and to aid in labor and delivery.
  • It has been documented that Cleopatra soaked in saffron-infused baths, believing the spice to be an aphrodisiac.
  • Saffron used as a curative for the bubonic plague (“Generall Historie of Plants”, by John Gerarde, 1597).

It was used in the arts. Medieval monks used a mixture of saffron dust and egg whites as a substitute for gold paint in their manuscripts. And, once upon a time, Buddhist monks used saffron to dye their yellow robes. (Today they use the much less costly turmeric as a substitute.)


Saffron can be added to countless dishes, but the ones I present here are not merely any recipe (fill in the blank) and add a pinch of saffron. These are foods created by people in the Mediterranean/Middle East area and are a representation of how local herbs and spices are used in their homes.

Eggless Saffron Cookies

Eggless Saffron Cookies

1. Eggless Saffron Cookies

Anushruti is a recipe developer, food writer, and photographer living in Mumbai, India. Her eggless saffron cookies are buttery like shortbread, filled with the unique flavors of saffron and pistachio nuts, and the most amazing golden color.

North African Chicken with Honey and Saffron

North African Chicken with Honey and Saffron

2. North African Chicken With Honey and Saffron

I found this recipe for chicken with honey and saffron on the Yummly website. I have simplified the list of ingredients and instructions and present the rewrite below:


  • 1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or 4 pounds of chicken legs and thighs
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped, about 1 cup
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 28 ounces canned diced tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon harissa paste
  • 1 1/4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons sliced almonds
  • 1 bunch of fresh coriander (coarsely chopped)
  • 1 bunch of fresh mint (leaves finely chopped)


  1. Skin the chicken pieces. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a sauté pan or shallow flameproof casserole. Add the chicken and fry, turning, until browned all over. Lift onto a plate and keep warm.
  2. Add the rest of the oil and the onion to the pan, then cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 6-7 minutes until soft and golden. Add the garlic, fresh ginger, and cinnamon, then cook for 2-3 minutes more. Add the ground ginger and cook for 1 minute.
  3. Stir in the tomatoes and harissa and cook gently for 5 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock, saffron, and some seasoning to taste, then bring to a boil. Return the chicken to the pan, cover it, and simmer for 25 minutes.
  4. When the chicken is cooked, lift the pieces onto a plate and cover it with cling film to keep it moist. Turn up the heat and bubble the sauce briskly for about 10 minutes until reduced by about half. Add the honey, simmer for 2 minutes more, then stir in the lemon juice. Taste and season.
  5. Return the chicken to the pan, coat the pieces in the sauce, then cover and simmer for 5 minutes until heated through.
  6. Garnish the chicken with sesame seeds, almonds, and herbs.

3. Orange Saffron Cake

Whole oranges are pureed to create this incredibly moist, flourless cake. The orange pulp and saffron imbue this orange saffron cake with amazing flavor and color.

Persian Cranberry Rice Pilaf

Persian Cranberry Rice Pilaf

4. Persian Cranberry Rice Pilaf

Each year on Thanksgiving Day, my family has a list of "family favorites" that they know will always appear on our dining table—turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, yams, and cranberry sauce are the old standbys that will always be there. But they also know that I will always try one new dish, something fun and unique.

I found this side dish of cranberry rice pilaf on the blog LittleSpiceJar. Basmati rice is seasoned and flavored with ghee (clarified butter), turmeric, saffron, sweet-crunchy pistachios, and (for Thanksgiving) dried cranberries. It's as beautiful as it is flavorful.

Saffron and Vanilla-Infused Honey

Saffron and Vanilla-Infused Honey

5. Saffron and Vanilla-Infused Honey

Three simple, ancient ingredients—honey, saffron, and vanilla—are blended together to create pantry staple you will use in so many ways. I love to stir this saffron and vanilla-infused honey into a hot cup of tea or stir into some homemade mayonnaise for a unique sweet-salty salad dressing.

© 2018 Linda Lum