Saffron is the spice responsible for not only the gorgeous hue, but also the distinct flavor used in rice dishes such as paella or risotto, among other things. But when you go to buy your ingredients for that special dish, you may get quite a sticker shock. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and is often referred to as red gold. Realizing this, it may be tempting to try and find a cheaper substitute. So what is the best substitute for saffron?
Let’s look at our options.
What is the Best Substitute for Saffron?
People often turn to turmeric as a replacement to saffron because of its comparable golden hue. But that is really where the similarities end. As we know, saffron is taken from the stigmas of the crocus sativus (the saffron crocus) in a highly labor intensive process. Turmeric on the other hand, is a root plant, which is harvested and then ground down. While it could be used to color your dish similarly to saffron, turmeric often attributes a bitter, peppery flavor to the dishes its used in, far from the subtle sweet taste of saffron. Turmeric does have some amazing health properties and is even being considered as a pain reliever and healing agent, but saffron is unmatched in its potential health benefits. And while turmeric definitely cheaper and easier to come by, the taste cannot be compared to saffron.
Safflower actually looks quite a bit like saffron - so much so that some merchants who are less-reputable and less familiar with saffron even use pictures of safflower on their labels, instead of saffron! Be careful when purchasing your saffron, as these merchants sometimes even mix safflower in with saffron to reduce costs. Saffron and safflower are definitely not the same! Safflower is a member of the daisy family and has been harvested primarily for its seeds and used for safflower oil. While safflower may have some health benefits, the taste of safflower is extremely minimal, and the smell can be quite unpleasant. A few threads of saffron can significantly alter a dish, while a large quantity of safflower would need to be added to provide any taste at all.
Annatto is from the seed and pulp of the achiote tree and is used to give food a deep yellow-orange color. For this reason, some chefs may try to use it as a cheaper substitute for saffron, earning it the nickname “poor man’s saffron”. Thanks to its rich color, annatto is frequently used as a natural food dye in both commercial and homemade food products. Annatto is used primarily to color food, as the spice in small amounts offers very little flavor, and in large amounts may begin to taste bitter.
Commercial Spice Packets
Manufacturers often create spice packets to add flavor and/or coloring to many different dishes, and some may try to pass themselves off as saffron substitutes. While some of these are simply spice blends, many contain very little actual spices. Unfortunately, many of these packets are loaded with artificial coloring and additives that have no nutritional benefit.
So what is the best substitute for saffron? It’s a trick question, because there really is NO substitute for saffron, the most magical spice. We get that the high price of saffron may scare you away, but remember, you only need to add a small pinch of saffron to a dish to start reaping the benefits. And between the gorgeous color, the unique flavor, and incredible health benefits, the reasons to shell out for the real thing are endless.
We here at Zaffrus love spices and natural food and know that these options can have a place at your table, but please don’t mistake them for the true taste of saffron!
Click here to buy some of the real thing!
Want to learn more? Click here to find out What Saffron Can Be Used For (Besides Cooking!)