Why Is Saffron So Expensive? Tips To Spot The Fakes

It’s no secret that saffron is one of the most expensive spices available. Each gram of authentic Kashmiri saffron (it is mainly grown and cultivated in Jammu & Kashmir and some parts of Himachal Pradesh) can cost you around Rs 500. Though it may sound steep, its price is related to its harvesting, which is not just labour-inducing but also quite complex since saffron only grows for a few weeks each year, and it’s essentially a small part of a fragrant flower. This means a large number of crops have to be harvested to produce even a small quantity of saffron. 

What most people may not realize is that saffron (Crocus sativus) is a purple flower. The orange-yellow strands with a sweet-herb smell which is used in cooking are actually the stigmata of the plant. And if numbers are to be believed, it takes 75,000 saffron flowers to make one pound of saffron spice, which of course, makes it one of the most expensive spices. 

This also leads to other factors which inadvertently drive up the price of the crops. Saffron requires a large land area for cultivation. Each flower produces a small amount of saffron, and to yield a substantial quantity, a significant number of flowers need to be cultivated which has to be grown over a large field. So the yield is much lower compared to the land used, which also results in a high price tag.

Moreover, saffron cultivation is highly sensitive to climatic and soil conditions. In India, Kashmiri saffron, which is famed for its flavour and colour, is harvested just once a year from late October till mid-November. The Crocus sativus flowers bloom for a short period during the fall. This limited flowering season means that saffron must be harvested within a specific timeframe which is what makes the harvesting so labour-intensive.

The flowers thrive in specific environments with well-drained soil and a dry climate. Out of a total of 5,707 hectares of land under saffron cultivation in Kashmir, more than 90 per cent is grown in Kashmir’s Pampore ((12 kms south of Srinagar) which lies in the Pulwama district. While some parts of Srinagar and central Kashmir also grow and harvest saffron.

The Labour That Goes Behind Its Production

After harvesting, the saffron stigmas must be carefully separated from the rest of the flower. This delicate process is done by hand, as machinery can damage the fragile saffron threads. Hand-processing further adds to the labour costs.

Once separated, the saffron threads undergo a drying process. This step is critical for preserving the spice and intensifying its flavour. The drying process is often done using traditional methods, which can be time-consuming and require careful monitoring.

Due to its high value, saffron is vulnerable to adulteration which is a way of increasing its bulk and weight. To ensure the purity of saffron, there are strict quality control measures in place, which also adds to the overall cost of production. Saffron is in high demand globally, particularly in the culinary and cosmetic industries. The high demand coupled with limited production contributes to its steep pricing.

How To Spot Fake Batches Of Saffon

It’s always safe to buy saffron directly from growers; either by travelling there or through shipping. Growers often sell their own harvests in and around Kashmir. There are also registered dealers in Srinagar for can supply you with authentic saffron. Despite the measures in place counterfeit saffron variants are available in markets across the country. 

Fake saffron is usually made with corn silk threads, safflower, coconut filaments etc. Real saffron can also be mixed with fillers to make the batch bulkier. If you’re buying saffron, there are a few easy ways to spot fake variants

Colour: Genuine saffron has a distinctive deep red color, often described as crimson. If the saffron threads appear too bright or have a uniform color, it could be an indication of artificial coloring. Additionally, real saffron should release a yellow tint when soaked in warm water or milk.

Appearance of Threads: Authentic saffron threads are thin and have a trumpet-like shape with a thicker bottom. If the threads are too thick or appear uniform in size and shape, they might be fake or of lower quality.

Aroma & Taste: Some people may not be aware of how saffron really smells like. It’s always safer to take someone who knows more about saffron. When you handle genuine saffron, it should release a powerful, slightly sweet, and floral fragrance. If the saffron has little to no aroma, it may be fake.

Also, remember that real saffron has a distinct and slightly bitter taste. If the saffron tastes sweet or lacks the characteristic bitterness, it could be adulterated with other substances.

Solubility in Water: Though this is not a hack that can be carried out at a store, it is quite fool-proof. Authentic saffron should be soluble in water. If the threads do not dissolve or leave behind colour after being soaked in water, it might indicate that the saffron is fake or has been artificially coloured.