Saffron is a distinctive spice used to add a rich yellow hue to foods, as well as flavor. Still considered one of the most, if not the most expensive spice in the world, saffron is not always in everyone’s budget and depending on where you live, it can also be difficult to source.To help with that, we offer some substitutes to saffron that will allow you to add color to your recipes. As saffron does have such a distinctive taste, there is no easy way to replicate its flavor, but a safflower or annatto substitute will add color to dishes, although their flavors differ.
The flavor of saffron is often described as being a bitter honey-like taste with an aroma of hay and honey. As well as being used in foods, saffron has also been used in dyes, perfumes and medicines for millennia. The yellow color of saffron is the official color of Buddhist robes.
It is a volatile oil called safranal that gives saffron its hay-like flavor and saffron also contains other oils such as limonene, linalool, cineole, pinene and geraniol. This abundance of different oils is why it is impossible to replicate the flavor of saffron with any other spices or ingredients.
Saffron appears in Greek mythology where Crocus, a man, fell in love with Smilax, a nymph. As Crocus’ advances were not appreciated by Smilax, he ended up being turned into a saffron crocus, and the stigmas of the saffron crocus reflected the unrequited passion.
Saffron is cultivated in many countries, including Turkey, Iran, India and China, as well as parts of Europe. Saffron was cultivated in the US by Dutch settlers but production of the spice reduced over the centuries. There is however a resurgence of interest in this valuable crop and farmers and researchers are now coming together to discover the best ways to grow saffron in different parts of the US.There are different types of saffron, including Valencia coup which is classed as one of the best alongside Kashmir saffron.
Why Saffron Is So Expensive
Often described as the most expensive spice in the world, saffron is sourced from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Although this crocus can grow almost anywhere in the world, it is a native of Southwest Asia and grows better in warmer climates.
These crocus grow to about six inches in height and the blue-violet flowers only bloom for between one to three weeks in the fall. Once flowering, these flowers are handpicked, and the three red stigmas measuring no more than 1½ in length inside each crocus flower are removed - it is these that are dried as saffron. Although a little saffron does go a long way, it can still take more than 200,000 crocus stigmas to produce just a pound of saffron.
During the time of Imperial Rome, saffron was used as a deodorizer and even as mascara, and it was recognized by Pliny that saffron was the most frequently falsified commodity – being ‘cut’ with dried flowers such as marigolds or calendulas, or even urine for extra color! It was also said that the legendary Egyptian queen, Cleopatra used saffron in her bathwater.
The Romans actually took saffron with them to other parts of Europe, including Britain, although much of this source of saffron was lost to Europe after the disintegration of the Roman Empire.
After the Dark Ages, parts of Europe started to cultivate saffron around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During the Black Death of 1347 to 1350, saffron was hugely in demand as a medicine for the plague. Unfortunately, many of the crop producers had died from the plague and importing it from middle eastern countries was not an option because of the earlier Crusades. This meant saffron had to be sourced from other places such as Rhodes.
The town of Basel eventually became a key growing area for saffron in Europe, and the town even employed guards to prevent people from stealing the flowers or bulbs. Because saffron was so valuable, it was often stolen and indeed there was a Saffron War which lasted for 14 weeks after an 800 pounds shipment of saffron was stolen by nobles.
By the fifteenth century, saffron was being heavily taxed as it was such a valuable crop and by the sixteenth century there was little price difference between saffron and gold!
Saffron is available as orange-red threads which are fine threads (the stigmas) with a yellow tendril at one end and a flute at the other, or as powder which is also orange-red colored.
The brighter the color of saffron, the higher its quality, while saffron threads that have white or light patches are lower quality. If you find lighter specks in powdered saffron, this is also an indicator of lower quality spice.Powdered saffron can also be diluted with other additives or spices such as turmeric. When you do buy saffron in either form, the brighter colors can also indicate how fresh the saffron is. Lighter colored saffron may have been on the shelf for longer and lost some of its flavor.
Popular in Asian, Moorish and Mediterranean cuisines, saffron is often used to color rice dishes such as risottos and curries. Saffron complements seafood and is often added to paella and bouillabaisse (French fish soup).
The subtle yet complex taste of saffron means that although its color comes through, its earthy flavor can easily be masked in dishes which contain bolder spices. Saffron can also be used in desserts, especially those that contain vanilla or other spices and it can also be added to some baked goods such as Cornish saffron buns.
When using saffron, it can be steeped in hot water or broth (a pinch per cup) and if the saffron is good quality it will expand once in contact with the water. Leave the saffron to infuse for 30 minutes or so – the longer the steep the stronger the color and flavor - and then add the cup of colored liquid to your recipe just before serving for the best color and flavor. This one cup of liquid should be enough to add flavor and color to a pound of rice.
You can also crush saffron threads with a pestle and mortar, or lightly toast them and grind them. Just be careful not to burn the threads if toasting them as you will not then be able to use them. Powdered saffron can be added straight to the recipe. When adding saffron to food, avoid using wooden utensils to stir it in with as the saffron will flavor the wood.
Saffron is usually available from larger grocery stores or specialist stores. If you do not see it on the shelf, then always ask as it will often be stored away to deter theft. Smaller packets of powdered saffron usually contain round a sixteenth of a teaspoon or a half teaspoon packet of saffron threads.Saffron should be stored in a cool place away from any light source, you can even wrap the packet in foil to help protect it from the light. Saffron does lose its flavor as it ages so it is usually at its best for around six months.
It is far easier to obtain the same coloring as saffron in a dish than it is its flavor, so carry on reading below to find out more about how you can add yellow color to your dishes without breaking your food budget.
Also known as azafan or Mexican saffron, safflower comes from the Carthamus tinctoris plant, a member of the Asteraceae family. Unlike saffron, it is the petals of safflower that is used rather than the stigmas. The seeds of safflower is also used to produce safflower oil.
Although the names are similar, there is no relationship between saffron and safflower.
Safflower was once the source of carthamin, a natural dye. Although this is still used in some areas of Southwest Asia, most carthamin has now been replaced with synthetic dyes.
When used in place of saffron, safflower provides the yellow coloring and a mild flavor with hints of sweet chocolate. A quarter teaspoon of saffron should be replaced with a quarter teaspoon of safflower, although for a richer color, you may need to add more safflower as its color is not as strong as saffron. Safflower is best used in dishes that have stronger flavors which can hide the different flavor of the safflower.
Safflower can also be used in dishes in its own right. Some Spanish recipes add safflower to sauces or even teas for aroma, while Syrian cooks use safflower in omelets and kibbeh (minced lamb and cracked wheat).
Although more research has been undertaken into the possible benefits of safflower oil rather than safflower (petals), scientists now know that safflower oil is a good source of unsaturated fatty acids, the types of fats that are deemed healthier than saturated fats (such as those from animal sources). Unsaturated fatty acids may help improve blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels, and the fats in safflower oil allow the body to absorb vitamins such as A and K, which are fat-soluble vitamins.Using safflower costs a lot less than saffron and for those who are not keen on the taste of saffron, but like the color that it adds to a dish, then safflower is an ideal substitute.
Made from the seeds of the achiote (Bixa orellana) tree which grows in Central and South America, annatto is a natural food coloring used in many foods, including cheeses and butters. Annatto has a mild flavor that is slightly peppery, earthy and musky and it can be used to flavor dishes as well as color them.
Annatto is rich in antioxidants that can help neutralize free radicals in the body, the molecules that are linked with aging as well as many common health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Annatto can also act as an antimicrobial and can prevent growth of some bacteria, as well as some fungi. The color in annatto comes from carotenoids (also found in yellow, orange and red fruits and vegetables) and carotenoids may help to protect eye health and reduce the accumulation of compounds linked with age-related macular degeneration.
As with safflower, annatto is usually added to recipes for its color rather than flavor and is sometimes known as ‘poor man’s saffron’. Annatto is common in many Central and South American recipe for stews, soups and spice rubs. It is also used in some Indian and Caribbean dishes.
Annatto can be found as seeds, ground or as a paste in some grocery stores or specialist South American stores. Be aware it may be labeled as achiote rather than annatto.When using annatto in cooking it should be used as extract. To do this, you will need to boil the annatto in water or broth and then add the liquid to the recipe; making any adjustments to the quantity of liquid in the dish as required.
3. Turmeric and Paprika
Turmeric is one of the most common saffron substitutes that will give the same coloring as saffron. In fact, powdered saffron can sometimes be ‘cut’ with turmeric. However, the flavor of turmeric (Curcuma longa) is very different to saffron which means that turmeric alone is not always an ideal substitute.
Some recommend the use of a quarter teaspoon of turmeric mixed with half a teaspoon of paprika to substitute for the flavor as well as color saffron. If you use this substitute, then use the same amount of your turmeric and paprika blend than you would use of saffron.Turmeric can also be blended with rosewater to replace saffron in Indian recipes.
4. Other Saffron Substitutes
While cardamom does have an earthy flavor that can substitute for saffron in some recipes, it is still a different flavor and it does not provide the color necessary, so you would still need to add an extra ingredient to provide the yellow hue. If you need saffron more for color than taste, then a few drops of a yellow food dye will provide color without altering the taste of the food.
Saffron has amongst other things been used in the bathwaters of Cleopatra and caused a war. An ancient and valuable spice, saffron is still used to add not just color, but also flavor to many dishes in many different cuisines.Although the unique flavor of saffron means it is impossible to easily substitute another ingredient to replace its flavor, we have seen in this post that there are some options available to add the color that saffron is so renowned for.