Saffron is a spice that is made from the stigmas and styles of the saffron crocus (crocus sativus). The stigma is part of the flower that receives pollen and the style attaches the stigma to the flower.
The main saffron producing countries are Spain, Iran, India, Greece and Morocco.
The stigmas and styles of the crocus sativus are picked by hand. A single crocus has three stigmas that together weigh about 0.5 gram (less than 0.02 oz). After picking, saffron is quickly dried and stored in airtight containers (to stop the saffron from losing its pungency and flavour). The dried stigmas are called threads.
It takes something between 110,000 and 165,000 flowers to produce a kilogram (2.2 lb) of dried saffron (that’s about the size of two football fields full of flowers).
It takes about 40 hours of labour to hand pick the saffron so it’s easy to understand why saffron is the most expensive spice. A kilogram of dried saffron can cost over US$10,000!!! You can buy small containers of saffron at most good supermarkets.
With saffron costing so much, it’s hardly surprising that saffron powder is sometimes mixed with other substances (such as turmeric powder) and passed off as being pure saffron by unscrupulous people. If you always buy saffron threads, instead of saffron powder, then you know that this is not happening.
Saffron is a bitter spice and only a little is needed in cooking. It only needs about 10 threads to be added to rice to give it the typical saffron yellow/orange colour and taste (the saffron threads are lightly crushed between your fingers and then soaked in a small amount of hot water for about 10-15 minutes before being added to the cooking rice). There’s an easy Saffron Rice recipe on the Curry Focus website.
A “pinch of saffron” is 0.1 gram (0.004 oz) that is a measure far too small to measure in the average kitchen. When you buy saffron threads, check the net weight on the container, count the number of threads in the container and then do the simple arithmetic to find out how many threads are in a pinch. My reckoning is that there are about 10 threads in a pinch.
As well as being used in cooking, saffron is also used in medicines (saffron has cancer suppressing and anti oxidant properties), perfumes and clothes dyes (Buddhist robes in India are saffron dyed).