Saffron simply isn’t something that many of us will just have lying around in our pantries, so it’s natural that this is something that many will need to find a substitute for. Let’s face it, who amongst us is willing to fork out in the region of $300 for an ounce of this stuff. Yes, it adds a lot to a dish – particularly rice based dishes, but the price has to have most of us thinking “is this really worth it?
So, why is saffron so expensive? Well, simply put, it is all about how labour intensive it is to harvest. For example, to get a one kilo return, you will need to harvest upwards of 100,000 individual plants (purple crocuses). What’s more is that the part harvested from the crocus that is saffron comes in the form of three tiny stigmas. These can only be harvested at dawn.
A Complete Guide to Substituting for Saffron
So, I don’t know about you, but that’s just way too much trouble to go through for a few flavourful red strips of plant material – though they are incredibly tasty! Sadly though, we have to admit that no substitute is an exact match and convincing as a stand-in. This is because the world’s most expensive spice has a few tricks up its sleeves.
The beautiful golden colour and the rich pungent aroma it adds to a dish are simply incomparable. As a result, it has been used as an ingredient in luscious dishes from around the world – in Spanish, Persian, Arabic and Indian cuisine. With that in mind, each suggested substitute given here is intended to get you as close as possible to the intended flavour and appearance of the dish without having to spend a fortune. However, if you have found yourself fortunate enough to be able to get your hands on some; use it. With that in mind, here is our rundown of the best substitutes for saffron that money can buy:
Turmeric is a member of the ginger family which can quite closely resemble the physical qualities of saffron. In fact, it resembles it so closely that many ethically unsound merchants have successfully sold it as saffron. When cooked into a dish, it provides the exact same colour and may well slip by unnoticed in a traditional paella.
That being said, the flavour types of the two are pretty much entirely incomparable. So, the real trick here is to substitute just enough turmeric into your dish to generate the desired colour, but not so much as to make it detectable to the palette. The earthy tones of the turmeric will give you away otherwise. If you want to experiment with this, it is best to invest in a high-quality turmeric ‘like this one below. Despite being more expensive than your typical turmeric in the local market, this will still cost you a fraction of the price of saffron.
This US brand specialises in delivering non-GMO and totally natural spices for over 30 years now, so when you buy from these guys, you know you’re in safe hands. There are no extra elements added to boost the colour and flavour but if anything, it has more to offer than most in those regards.
- No preservatives and gluten free
- Can also be used as a skin treatment in the form of a facemask
- Possibly the best turmeric powder out there
- Not a match for flavour, but about as close as you can get
Colloquially known as the “poor man’s saffron” in its native regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, this underappreciated ingredient may be just what you were looking for to negate the need for saffron. The spice itself comes from the achiote tree and provides quite a unique flavour in that it is both akin to pepper and sweet simultaneously.
We can see then how it earned its title. And it is by no means a bad substitute in other terms either. Where it differs the most from saffron is in the way you use it. To reap the benefits of Annatto, you first have to boil it in water – effectively making an extract. To substitute, we would recommend adding in small amounts and taste testing the flavour of your dish as you go along.
· A wide range of uses outside of as a substitute for saffron
· Readily available in quite a few supermarkets
· Great value for money
· Doesn’t provide the colour aspect
Safflower, or the “Mexican Saffron” is another substitute which has on some occasions been sold to unwitting people as saffron. It grows throughout South America and some regions in the US and bears no familial traits with the purple crocus from which we get saffron. We also use the petals of this plant as opposed to the stigma.
For all of its differences though, when used in the same amounts in a recipe, it does actually manage to mimic the colour and the odour of the real deal. In that regard alone, it is probably the most convincing substitute on this list.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that this product somewhat misleadingly uses the word saffron in its description. This product is in fact Azafran, which is another name for safflower.
· Easy to use if you know how
· Great colour and fragrance
· Doubles as a healthy tea
- Lacking a small bit in the flavour department
4. Turmeric combined with Paprika
As we mentioned earlier in this list, turmeric can make for a good and convincing substitute for saffron when it comes to colour. What gives the game away, however, is the earthiness of its flavour. So, to remedy that, here is a quick and easy way to resolve that using ingredients you may well already have at your disposal.
To really make this work, particularly with Spanish cooking, we recommend choosing a sweet, dry paprika powder and using this half and half with the turmeric. Once again, we’d recommend adding this mixture in small increments into your dish as it evolves. This way you can instantly identify whether the turmeric flavour is becoming too prominent.
We hope that you found this guide to substituting for saffron to be a valuable and informative resource when you need an alternative option. As you can see, there are several viable options out there – one of which may well be growing freely in your back garden!
We invite you to review the following question and answer section for some additional information that could be helpful to you.
Can I grow my own saffron?
Since saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, it makes total sense to want to grow it rather than buying it. Well, the good news is that you can cultivate purple crocus in your own garden and then harvest the three stigma each flower will produce at dawn. The bad news is; to harvest a decent and worthwhile amount for the purposes of selling, you’re looking at a very labour intensive process. As a hobby, it can be quite satisfying.
Where can I find wild saffron?
We generally associate saffron with Spain, but the truth is it can be grown pretty much anywhere. Saffron/Purple Crocus have been known to be micro-cultivated and to appear in the wild as far north as Canada and as far south as New Zealand.
Is it possible to be allergic to saffron?
People who are allergic to olives may also be allergic to saffron. Those with heart conditions may also notice that the consumption of saffron causes an increase in their heart rate. Those with low blood pressure may have the reaction that their pressure drops. In all instances, this relates only to consuming a significant amount of saffron in a sitting.