Safflower is cultivated mostly for its seeds, which are used to make safflower oil; however, the petals are useful as well. You can use them as a spice and as a food coloring. Consider the following uses for safflower:
As a saffron substitute or enhancer
Safflower is a popular replacement for saffron; in fact, it is sometimes referred to as the poor man’s saffron, bastard saffron, or false saffron. Other names that you might hear used for it depend on where you are in the world; for example, you might hear safflower called Turkish saffron or Mexican saffron.
The two spices are similar enough that throughout history safflower has been used by dishonest spice merchants to adulterate true saffron. Safflower is different from saffron in that the saffron spice consists of stamens from the Crocus sativa plant which are labor intensive to harvest; safflower petals require less work to acquire. As a result, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice while safflower sells at a much lower cost.
Safflower is not the best saffron alternative in terms of flavor. In fact, it does not offer much flavor or aroma at all. The blandness makes it a good option for people who dislike saffron’s taste but enjoy its color. Safflower gives a saffron-like bright yellow to food. Also, you can use safflower along with saffron to enhance the latter’s yellow color. By adding safflower, you may be able to use less saffron and save money.
Safflower gives rice dishes an attractive yellow color, similar to the color given by saffron; this is one of the most popular ways to use safflower petals. Use it to make Mexican rice and other Latin dishes.
In khmeli suneli
Georgian cuisine makes use of the fragrant spice blend called khmeli suneli, which includes safflower petals along with other herbs and spices like savory and fenugreek. Most blends specify the more flavorful marigold petals instead but safflower is an acceptable substitute.
In Middle Eastern food
In Arabic, safflower is called usfur or you may sometimes see it spelled osfor or asfor. Safflower is a common, cheaper saffron alternative used throughout the Middle East. It is especially common in Damascene cooking where saffron is not used at all. In Damascus, you will see safflower petals used in dishes like kousa mahshi, which is a stuffed zucchini dish. You may also see it in the Syrian omelet called ejjeh.
In Azerbaijani food
You will see safflower used in a few recipes from Azerbaijan. Its role is mostly as a food coloring, not so much as a spice. It shows up in piti, which is a kind of lamb or mutton soup with chickpeas and quinces.
In Filipino food
Safflower gives the Filipino dish arroz caldo its distinctive color. Arroz caldo is a cross between yellow rice and a Chinese congee. You often see it described as a gruel. A common version features rice, chicken and spices like safflower. You will also see safflower included in atchara, which is a pickle made from green papayas.
In Portuguese fish stew
Safflower shows up in Portuguese fish stews made with halibut or hake. Safflower is added to the stew as part of a seasoning paste.
As a tea
One of the easiest ways to enjoy safflower is to steep the petals in hot water to make a beverage. As an herbal tea, safflower has numerous health benefits including the ability to improve heart and bone health.