Saffron Vs. Sassafras: SPICEography Showdown

Saffron and sassafras are two spices associated with regional food. They are a couple of niche spices that some cooks will consider essential, but many won’t need at all. In the US, saffron and sassafras are similar in that neither is heavily used. Saffron is expensive, and its applications are few and exotic, while sassafras has even fewer applications and has been deemed to be a health risk. To learn more about each spice and how they stack up against each other, let’s compare them in the SPICEography Showdown below.

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How does saffron differ from sassafras?

Saffron and sassafras come from unrelated plants native to different parts of the world. Saffron consists of the stigma and styles of the crocus flower — Crocus sativus — which probably originated in Greece but today is grown mainly in Iran, India, and Spain. Sassafras is made from the leaves of the sassafras tree, with the botanical name Sassafras albidum. Sassafras trees come from the eastern part of North America and are sometimes described as the only spice native to America.

Saffron and sassafras have different appearances. Saffron consists of fine red-orange threads that are sometimes powdered. Sassafras consists of leaves that are usually ground to make an olive green powder also called file powder.

Saffron has a different flavor profile from sassafras. The flavor of saffron is mildly floral and earthy with grassy notes. Sassafras has a root beer smell with hints of anise, citrus, and eucalyptus.

Saffron and sassafras each have different effects on the dishes in which they are used, aside from flavor. Saffron gives food a golden color, while sassafras acts as a thickener because of its mucilage.

Saffron and sassafras are prepared differently. Saffron’s preparation is more complicated as it generally has to be steeped before being added to dishes, and it has to be cooked for longer to flavor and color food. Don’t cook sassafras in the form of file powder since heating it makes your food stringy.

Saffron and sassafras differ in terms of their cost. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by weight. Sassafras costs only a fraction of what saffron costs.

Can you use saffron as a substitute for sassafras and vice versa?

Saffron will not be a good substitute for sassafras. Saffron lacks the distinctive flavor of sassafras, which means that the substitution would dramatically change the flavor of the dish. Along with the flavor, saffron’s color would also change the dish’s appearance. Despite the change in flavor and appearance, saffron’s mild and largely inoffensive flavor is unlikely to taint savory ingredients so much that they become edible.

Sassafras will not be a good saffron substitute in any capacity. Its strong flavors will not work in dishes that require saffron’s delicate taste. Replacing saffron with sassafras is likely to give dishes undesirable flavors and consistencies. Clashing flavors and a mucilaginous consistency may result in an inedible dish.

When should you use saffron? And when should you use sassafras?

Use saffron in Middle Eastern dishes like Persian jeweled rice and the candy called halva. It is also essential for Mediterranean staples like risotto and paella.

Use sassafras to replace okra as a thickener for gumbo. The leaves, roots, and bark of the sassafras tree also provide one of the essential flavorings in the original recipe for root beer. The root in root beer refers to sassafras tree roots.