Since You Asked: Exotic taste makes saffron a culinary star

Lately, I've seen more recipes calling for saffron. I've never used it, mainly because it's so expensive. Why is that? And is it really necessary in a recipe?

— Pete K., Talent

Unlike some spices prized since ancient times, saffron never really shed its royal reputation. That's because its labor-intensive, extremely short harvest commands a price of $100 per ounce.

Each saffron-producing flower — crocus sativus — has only three bright-red stigma, the threads dried for saffron. Using fine tweezers, a harvester plucks these threads from each flower and leaves behind the yellow stamens, which have no taste. The stigmas from 6,000 crocuses are needed to equal 1 ounce of saffron.

The world's finest saffron grows in la Mancha, one of Spain's seven saffron-producing provinces. Look for premium Spanish saffron in glass tubes or clear plastic containers. Once cured and dried, top-grade saffron retains the bright color even in storage.

Because saffron weighs so little, it's not really such a hefty investment. Adding a pinch to a recipe costs about 50 cents. Maximize saffron's flavor by crushing the threads first. If your recipe includes water, boil a little of it, pour it over the saffron and allow it to steep for 15 minutes to an hour.

Long used as a distinctive dye, saffron doesn't just stain food a rich, gold hue. The threads impart a slightly sweet, grassy, almost metallic flavor that's no less distinctive than the color. There really is no substitution for it, but — as with any spice — it's all about how much you desire that taste. You could mimic the gold color by substituting dried calendula petals.

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