102_saffron.jpg Saffron
Saffron refers to the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus flower. Its taste has been described as sweet and hay-like. It is used for both flavoring and coloring. It is a key ingredient in traditional Spanish paella, a dish of rice and shellfish.

Cost: The average retail price is around $1000 per pound. A pound will get you 70,000 to 200,000 threads.

Why it's expensive: Many flowers are required to yield a viable supply of saffron threads. It takes 50,000 to 75,000 flowers to give just 1 pound (454 grams) of dried saffron threads. Picking the flowers is incredibly labor intensive, with 40 hours of labor required to pick 150,000 flowers.

Alternatives: Turmeric is a common substitution, but usually for coloring rather than flavor.  Turmeric has a very different (and strong) flavor from saffron, so a little goes a long way.

8_vanillaextract.jpg Pure Vanilla
Vanilla is a flavoring made from the pods of an edible orchid. It has an incredible aromatic flavor that is used in many kinds of confections and desserts.
Cost: Prices can range from $50 to $200 per pound of vanilla beans, with the highest quality coming from Madagascar and Mexico. Pure vanilla extract retails for around $2 per fluid ounce.

Why it's expensive: While the pods grow quickly on their vines, they can only be harvested until proper maturity (about 10 months) to ensure quality. Since each pod matures at its own time, they must be picked individually by hand, just as it starts to split on the ends. This is a labor intensive process that requires a daily harvest.

Alternatives: Artificial vanilla flavoring can be bought at a fraction of the price. But of course, the quality doesn't come close to the real thing.

472_cardamom.jpg Cardamom
Made from the seeds from cardamom plant pods, cardamom is a spice native to parts of south-east Asia, especially India and and Sri Lanka. Guatemala and India are now the main producers. Cardamom has been a key ingredient in south-east Asian cuisine for millenia. It's a major ingredient in spice mixes like curry and garam masala, and used as a coffee additive in Arab countries.

Cost: Whole pods retail for about $30 per pound, with ground cardamom selling for $6 to $10 per ounce. The good news is, with its strong flavor, just a little goes a long way.

Why it's expensive: Like other expensive spices, harvesting cardamom involves a labor-intensive handpicking process. The pods ripen slowly, and each must be picked when three-quarters ripe. The pods must then be washed and dried. Yields are low, with 40 to 120 pounds of seeds per acre.

Alternatives: Nothing tastes exactly like cardamom, so a general substitute is hard to come by. Equal parts ground nutmeg and cinnamon may work depending on the recipe.