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What Is Red Saffron?

Amanda R. Bell
Amanda R. Bell

Red saffron is harvested from the crocus plant which is grown primarily between the Mediterranean region and India. It is considered to be the most expensive spice in the world. With a uniquely sweet flavor, red saffron is primarily used in cooking, although it is well known for its medicinal purposes. It is also utilized for its color in dyes and paints and for its scent in perfumes.

The crocus plant produces small, light purple flowers in the fall. Two to three red saffron threads are inside each flower; while many flowers have these threads, known as stigmas, this specific crocus plant is the only one that produces saffron. The threads are hand harvested over a period of three weeks in the fall after the flowers of the plant have bloomed.

Red saffron.
Red saffron.

The majority of the world’s red saffron supply comes from crocuses grown in Spain and Iran. Other countries, such as India, Greece, Italy, and Morocco, also produce a fair amount of this rare spice. Each country tends to grow one or more different varieties, with slight variations in flavor, smell, and color. While all saffron is red in color, true red saffron has the yellow tip of each individual stigma removed. Saffron with a deep red color and only a small, trace amount of yellow tips left is considered the highest quality available. Once harvested, the threads are dried and packaged.

Saffron flowers (more accurately known as saffron crocuses).
Saffron flowers (more accurately known as saffron crocuses).

As each crocus flower only has two or three saffron strands inside, it takes nearly an acre of land to produce 5 pounds (2.2 kilograms) of red saffron. This, coupled with the need for harvesting by hand, makes this spice the most expensive, by weight, in the world. Ssaffron is so strong in flavor and color, however, that very little is needed when cooking; typically only one to two strands for a dish that serves four.

India produces a fair amount of red saffron.
India produces a fair amount of red saffron.

Red saffron is known for its honey-like flavor and a smell that many compare to sweet hay. When added to recipes, it produces a rich yellow color and distinct flavor; it is popular in rice, stew, and seafood dishes. Since saffron is dried, it needs to be added to some sort of warm liquid for its true flavor and color to shine through.

Saffron has been used for thousands of years in other capacities. In ancient Egypt, for example, red saffron was believed to be an aphrodisiac. It is also known as a fever reducer and for its ability to treat anxiety as well as menstrual cramps and issues with the liver or joints. Despite these uses, large amounts of saffron can be deadly, however. Due to the unique color of saffron, in ancient times it was often the primary ingredient in certain color dyes and paints. While it is still utilized as such in some areas today, it is most popular, outside of cooking, is as an ingredient in colognes and perfumes, typically as a top note.

Discussion Comments


Red saffron also grows in the Kashmir region in India and some say that Kashmiri red saffron is the best in the world.

There is also something called yellow saffron, but that's actually safflower. It also goes by the name American saffron.


@ZipLine-- You are right, all products sold as "red saffron" are not true saffron. I have also heard about the food coloring claim but I think you can tell if food coloring has been used if you put a little bit of the saffron in water. If the water turns red, then you should definitely suspect food coloring. If you paid a lot for your red saffron and if you bought it from a reliable brand, I'm sure that it's true saffron.

If you have ever seen true red saffron, then you can probably tell whether a saffron is real just by looking at it. I don't think it's easy to duplicate the stigmas. Powder saffron is easier to adulterate, I would worry more about adulteration if I was using powder saffron.


I've heard that most of the red saffron on the market is fake. Apparently, many producers color other plants like safflower with food coloring and pass it off as red saffron. Saffron is said to be the most adulterated spice in the world. This is not surprising because it takes about 200 saffron flowers to get a gram of saffron spice. Because the spice is just the stigmas of the saffron flower and each flower only has three.

I have red saffron in my cabinet and I'm hoping that it's the real thing because it was expensive. I don't even know if there is any way of checking though.

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    • Red saffron.
      By: Marco Speranza
      Red saffron.
    • Saffron flowers (more accurately known as saffron crocuses).
      By: robert casacci
      Saffron flowers (more accurately known as saffron crocuses).
    • India produces a fair amount of red saffron.
      By: Tupungato
      India produces a fair amount of red saffron.
    • Red saffron is popular in rice dishes.
      By: amenic181
      Red saffron is popular in rice dishes.