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In The Family
Why Is Saffron So Expensive?

The most expensive food on earth costs more per ounce than silver.

With a wholesale price tag as high as $10,000 per pound, saffron is the single most expensive food on earth. Which is why it’s always been treated as a delicacy: a fabric dye for royalty, a perfume compound for the wealthy, an ingredient reserved for special meals that immediately signify luxury.

To understand why, consider what saffron actually is and where it comes from. Saffron threads are the stamens of the crocus sativus flower, a tricky-to-grow plant that demands careful human cultivation. The crocus only fully blooms for a few hours a day, and each flower yields just three tiny saffron threads. It takes over 50,000 flowers to produce just one pound of saffron—laborious work that requires skilled labor to do right.

So it’s no surprise that plenty of counterfeit saffron floods the market. To get the good stuff, always buy whole saffron, not ground, which is usually adulterated with fillers, and look for thin, wavy threads with yellow dots at one end, a sign the stamens haven’t been dyed and are showing their true colors.

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.