Saffron is easily the world’s most expensive spice. In fact, throughout history unscrupulous merchants have falsified it. In the Middle Ages, the problem of saffron adulteration was serious enough that those found guilty of committing it were executed. It is expensive because it consists of crocus stamens that must be extracted by hand. It can take well over 70,000 flowers just to get one pound of the spice.
Despite the fact that the names sound similar, safflower is not a relative of saffron. The petals of the safflower are useful as a spice and for producing a bright yellow color. Some cooks use safflower as an alternative to saffron and the two are alike enough that it is sometimes called “bastard saffron.” What else makes these two spices similar or different? Let’s break it down in another SPICEography Showdown.
Are safflower and saffron similar in appearance?
Safflower and saffron are similar enough that they can be mistaken for each other to the untrained eye; however, there are certain very clear differences between the two. Saffron has a more delicate color when compared to safflower petals, which are a brilliant red. If you inspect safflower and saffron side by side, you will be able to see that safflower consists of petals while saffron consists of stamens. Still another difference lies in the ability of each spice to provide color in a dish. You only need a small amount of saffron to provide a deep yellow to food, whereas you will need to use a larger amount of safflower for a similar effect.
Do safflower and saffron differ in flavor?
Saffron has a very strong and distinctive flavor, whereas the flavor of safflower is relatively mild. You only need a little saffron to flavor a dish; you will need to use a relatively large amount of safflower to get equivalent results. Some experts describe saffron’s flavor as being similar to honey, while safflower has notes of sweet chocolate.
Can you use safflower in place of saffron and vice versa?
Because of the high cost of saffron, it may seem worthwhile to look for an alternative. Safflower is widely used as a replacement for saffron by budget-minded cooks. If you are not fond of the flavor of saffron but want your dish to have a bright yellow color, safflower may be ideal for you. You can use saffron in place of safflower in dishes where its strong flavor will not be a problem.
What are the best uses for safflower and saffron?
Saffron is an essential ingredient in bouillabaisse and in paella. Indian cooks use it in rice dishes and Italian cooks use it in risottos. In all cases, cooks use the spice to enhance the dishes with color and flavor. In addition, you can make an infusion with saffron and take it as a medicine.
While safflower does have a pleasant flavor, it is not quite as widely esteemed as saffron is; however, it is quite popular in some cultures. Azerbaijanis use it in a mutton soup where it is added at the end of the cooking time and gives a yellow color to the food. Syrian cooks use it in a variety of dishes including omelets and in kibbeh, a dish of cracked wheat and minced lamb. In addition, Spaniards use it in various sauces and for making teas more aromatic.