Saffron and turmeric are two spices that are best known for their roles in classic South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Because they provide both bright colors and flavor, they are important for a number of classic dishes and some cooks see them as delivering very similar benefits to food. Despite a few key similarities, these two spices are very different from each other. Learn about their differences in the SPICEography Showdown below.
How do saffron and turmeric differ?
Saffron consists entirely of the stamens from crocus flowers native to Crete while turmeric is an Indian rhizome related to ginger. Saffron contains a yellow pigment but more importantly, the stamens have a light flavor that is different from the flavor of turmeric. Saffron’s flavor is subtly metallic with earthy and nutty notes. Turmeric’s flavor is slightly peppery with a mild bitter note.
Saffron costs a lot more than turmeric. It is considered the world’s most expensive spice mainly due to the amount of work and time it takes to harvest the stamens. In order to get just one pound of the spice, you need over 75,000 crocus blossoms. There only three of the stamens per plant. To make it even more difficult, the crocus from which saffron comes is notoriously difficult to grow. Turmeric is relatively easy to harvest since it consists of a dried and ground root that looks a lot like ginger and that grows easily in tropical climates.
The spices differ in terms of some health benefits with saffron being considered an antidepressant and a memory booster. Turmeric is renowned for its anti-inflammatory effects and its potential in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Can you use saffron in place of turmeric and vice versa?
Because saffron and turmeric are used more for their coloring ability than anything else, they are interchangeable in many dishes. You may be able to use them as substitutes for each other in some dishes if you are more interested in getting a yellow color than you are in their respective flavors. They are similar enough that turmeric has long been used by shady spice merchants as a way to adulterate ground saffron.
Note that while saffron can provide a similar color to that of turmeric, its cost means not it is not an economical substitute. While turmeric can stand in for saffron and is cheaper, its bitterness means that it is not a good option in desserts if you need to use a large amount of it. It is sometimes recommended that you combine a small amount of paprika with turmeric when using it as a saffron substitute in savory dishes. This may make it an even closer approximation of saffron.
When should you use saffron and when should you use turmeric?
Saffron is an ingredient in many traditional European rice dishes including paellas and pilafs. It shows up in Persian saffron rice as well as other Persian dishes like baghali polo. It can also be used in some desserts including pannacotta and the Turkish rice pudding called zerde. Use turmeric in Indian dishes and Indian-influenced spice blends. It is an important ingredient in aloo gobi sabzi, a vegetable curry dish from Northern India as well as in most (if not all) curry powder blends.