A pinch of saffron threads is all it takes to transform a dish of plain rice into a rich golden-yellow dish as delicious for the eyes as the palate.

Although widely described as the most expensive spice by weight, most recipes usually only require a pinch (approximately 20 threads) or less. Saffron is the stigmas of a flower called saffron crocus and harvesting takes significant time, hence the price.

Occasionally described as having honey- and hay-like flavours, saffron is used in desserts as well as savoury meals. It is most renowned for its use in paella, bouillabaisse (not a typically vegetarian dish, but it has happened!) and biryani, but features in a vast range of cuisines beyond those, too.

Saffron releases its flavours most when it has been crushed and soaked in hot (not boiling) liquid for around 15 minutes. You can skip this step if you are planning to use it directly in a dish with a lot of liquid, such as risotto.

Using saffron will result in a vibrant golden risotto; try one topped with sizzled shallots and roasted pumpkin. Or grind it in a pestle and mortar with a little salt and toss through cooked ribbons of pasta, for a sweet flavour and beautiful colour.

Once you’ve decided whether or not you’re a fan of the saffron flavour, experiment by adding the soaked, ground strands to the filling of a cheesecake, or the liquid for poaching fruit (great during these cooler months).

Saffron might not be for everyone, especially considering the price, but for special dishes that glow on the dinner plate, the spice from those beautiful purple flowers cannot be beaten.

This originally appeared in Vegetarian Living NZ, which is NZ Vegetarian Society’s seasonal magazine.