Saffron is the stigma (or stamen) of the high-maintenance crocus flower. It is widely used in a range of savory dishes that include paellas, risottos and pilafs. It is also used in desserts like custards and ice cream.
Saffron is prized among serious cooks, not just because of its unique flavor but also because of how expensive it is. Saffron is the most expensive food in the world. Pound for pound, it is worth far more than all other luxury ingredients including truffles and caviar. If you are having a hard time justifying the purchase of saffron, the good news is that you have several options when it comes to substitutes.
Your best bet: Turmeric
This member of the ginger family is the most widely recommended saffron substitute. It is similar enough that unscrupulous spice merchants have used it to adulterate real saffron. It provides a yellow color similar to that of saffron (when cooked). Note that while it will provide the desired color, it has its own flavor. For starters, saffron has a much different and much earthier taste when compared to turmeric. As a result, the flavor of turmeric may not work well in some dishes that call for saffron.
Some experts suggest combining turmeric with paprika as an effective substitute for saffron. To make this saffron substitute, you would combine 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric with 1/2 teaspoon of saffron.
Turmeric may be found in the spice aisle of well-stocked grocery stores as well as in some health food stores.
A decent second choice: Annatto
This spice comes from achiote trees and provides a flavor that can be described as both sweet and peppery. Annatto is often used throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in place of saffron. In fact, in some places it is referred to as “poor man’s saffron.” You do not add annatto directly to your dish; instead, you make an extract by boiling it in water and then using the liquid. Be sure to adjust the liquid in your recipe depending on how much of the annatto extract that you add. You can find annatto seeds in the Mexican section of some grocery stores and in the spice section of Latin markets.
In a pinch: Safflower
Safflower is considered by some to be an excellent substitute saffron. This flowering plant is best known for being used to produce safflower oil and is also known as “Mexican saffron” or azafran. Aside from the fact that it comes from a completely different plant, another difference is that the petals are the part of this plant that are used and not the stigmas. Safflower has commonly been passed off as saffron as it has a similar ability to color food along with a pleasant, distinctive flavor. If your dish calls for a teaspoon of saffron, you would use a teaspoon of safflower in its place.
There are a few other options that you can try if you are unable to find turmeric, annatto seeds or safflower. Marigold blossoms can be used to provide a similar color to that of saffron. It will be necessary to dry the blossoms and then grind them to a powder that you can use in place of saffron threads. Another option is cardamom, which can provide a similar flavor but not the yellow color.