Saffron is one of the costliest spices in the market. It isn’t a cost-effective option for common people to use this spice in cooking. If you don’t have it, or can’t afford it, then there are a few other cheaper and popular condiments to use as a saffron substitute. Unfortunately, some of the alternative options we have found are also scarce like saffron.
What is saffron?
Saffron is a reddish-orange-colored, pungent stigma of the autumn crocus (Crocus Sativus). The saffron threads (whole stigma) are dried and used as a spice to flavor or color foods, in cosmetics products, and alternative medicines.
In cooking, this exotic spice adds its musky astringent flavor profile and a delightful aroma. Its earthy and floral taste is truly appetizing. Bakers use it for rendering a vibrant reddish-orange color to baked goods, cakes, desserts, and many more. Saffron is central to some of the popular dishes like paella, risotto, bouillabaisse, and pilaf.
About 80% of saffron production in the world is done in few small regions of Iran and Spain. The scarcity of this spice makes it an expensive and exotic spice unaffordable for most home cooks.
What can you use as a saffron substitute?
The vibrant color and unique floral taste of saffron thread aren’t replaceable with another spice. However, there are a few cheap and easy mediocre saffron substitutes that you can use in an emergency. Note, if you want the authentic taste of paella, saffron rice patties, or Italian saffron risotto, then you have to use the real thing.
Here are some of the alternatives worth considering:
Turmeric, also known as Indian saffron, golden spice, or saffron of the Indies, is the most recommended substitute for saffron. In fact, the famous Middle Eastern spice merchants of the past used to lace saffron with turmeric to cut the cost. Turmeric is a cheaper and easily available replacement ingredient for coloring food.
The acrid flavor of turmeric can overpower your dish if used in large quantities.
Some chefs suggest using a mixture of paprika and turmeric to achieve a better-rounded flavor close to saffron. Use a mixture of ½ teaspoon paprika and ¼ teaspoon turmeric for preparing this blend.
Usually, ¼ teaspoon of ground turmeric is more than enough for a dish meant for 5 servings.
Safflower, also known as Mexican saffron, is commercially cultivated for vegetable oil extracted from the seeds. In the early Spanish colonies, it was used along with the Rio Grande as a substitute for saffron.
Safflower and saffron are two totally different species of plants with no similarities in flavors. The dried stigmas of this flower are mostly used for its vibrant color that is similar to saffron.
You can decide the substitute ratio of these two ingredients depending on the preferred color texture for your dish. Usually, safflower is used in more quantity to achieve a color similar to saffron. It works best for coloring soups, slow-cooked seafood, and liquid-rich savory dishes.
Annatto is an orange-red condiment and food coloring ingredient obtained from the seeds of achiote tree mostly grown in Mexico and Brazil. This condiment, nicknamed “poor man’s saffron”, is undoubtedly an effective replacement for saffron.
Usually, the annatto seeds are kept soaked in water or vegetable oil for 30 minutes, and then use the strained liquid extract in your dishes like paella or risotto. Use one teaspoon of annatto for every ¼ cup of extract. When you are using annatto liquid extract in your recipe reduce other liquids in the dish in proportion to it.
4. Marigold flowers
Edible yellow marigold flower petals are country man’s humble saffron alternative for coloring foods.
Use the dried and ground petal of the marigold flower in your recipe. Note, edible marigold flowers taste citrusy to subtly spicy, thus overuse of this condiment may alter the flavor of your dish.
Cardamom does not render the color of saffron but their flavors complement each other. Of course, the earthy, sweet flavor of cardamom is different from that of saffron. However, most of the sweet and savory dishes with a blend of cardamom and saffron are used for better taste.
Using cardamom in place of saffron in some dishes is a gratifying option. This substitution works great in desserts, pilaf, and herbal tea.
The bottom line
There is not a single spice or condiment that can recreate the flavor of saffron thread. If the flavor is your core concern then there is no choice other than to use saffron itself. Turmeric is the best saffron substitute for coloring your dish. Other viable alternatives include safflower, yellow marigold flower, and annatto.