The herb safflower is known for its bright yellow flowers, the petals of which are used both for dying fabrics and as a spice in Latin American, Eastern European and Middle Eastern dishes. The seeds are also used to make oil that is regarded as heart healthy.
The dried safflower petals are used for their very mild flavor and ability to imbue foods with a pleasing yellow color. You can find safflower spice in the Mexican aisle of many grocery stores. If your local store is out or if you need some in an emergency, consider the alternatives below.
Your best bet: Turmeric
Turmeric is a bright yellow spice best known for giving curry powder its bright yellow hue. It consists of the dried and ground rhizome of a plant in the ginger family. The rhizome of the plant has a dull orange color that becomes a brilliant yellow after drying and grinding. Like safflower, turmeric is used widely in Middle Eastern cooking. Another way that it is similar to safflower is that its mild flavor. While too much of it can make food bitter, the right amount imparts a subtle spiciness that can complement most of the foods that would require safflower. In addition, it provides a similar yellow to the kind that safflower gives.
A decent second choice: Saffron
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, so it may not be an ideal option if you are trying to save money. However, it provides your food with a bright yellow color just like safflower. In fact, the two are similar enough that safflower has been used to adulterate saffron in the past. As a result of the similarity, safflower is sometimes called “false saffron.” Saffron consists of the stigma of the crocus sativus flower. Each flower has three stigmas so that it takes 20 threads to make up a modest pinch. The stigmas must be removed by hand, which makes producing it labor intensive and expensive. Note that while safflower is heavy on the color and light on the flavor, saffron offers an abundance of both color and flavor. While the flavor is generally pleasing, it may not work perfectly in all recipes that require safflower. It is a good idea to try a little first and increase the amount from there.
In a pinch: Annatto seeds
Like safflower, annatto seeds are used both as a spice and as a source of dyes. You can buy them whole or in the form of a block or a paste. Look for them in the Latin American section of your grocery store. You can cook the seeds or paste in hot water or oil until they release their pigment; that oil or water can then be used to provide color to your dishes. While the color that annatto seeds provide is more of a fiery orange than a bright yellow, it can still work in many of the dishes in which safflower is used. The flavor of annatto seeds is earthy with nutty notes but is very mild, which means that it is unlikely to interfere with the other flavors in your dish.
Most curry powder blends contain a significant amount of turmeric, which means that it can provide the color that you are looking for from safflower. Bear in mind that it will also contain other spices that may or may not work in your dish. Consider using marigold blossoms to give your food a yellow color without too much of an effect on flavor. Like safflower, marigold petals have been used to adulterate saffron and can provide a similar distinctive color to your food.