Saffron is an indulgence for any professional chef. It’s an ingredient you can’t skip if your recipe calls for it. With a uniquely sweet floral taste, it’s also very earthy and complexly nuanced. The use of saffron as a seasoning originated somewhere in the Caucasus region thousands of years ago. It remains a staple of modern-day Mediterranean and Spanish cuisine.
Did you know that saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by weight? Replacing this unique spice can be tricky, but here are some clever substitutes that will make your recipe work without saffron.
Turmeric is a spice belonging to the ginger plant family. It’s the most popular and the most practical substitute for saffron. Ground turmeric is the closest thing to saffron in terms of looks and taste. Turmeric works with all kinds of dishes, including risotto, curry, biryani, and paella.
Be sure to use turmeric sparingly though because it has a pretty intense earthy flavor with a bit of pepper spice. It’s an ideal substitute for saffron in recipes that use saffron to add color to a dish. But if you want to give your recipe the same taste as saffron, you can mix some ground paprika with turmeric.
1 Tsp. Saffron = ½ Tsp. Turmeric
Safflower, also known as “Mexican saffron” or “azafran,” has a similar-sounding name to saffron but comes from a different plant in the sunflower family. Nonetheless, it looks and smells a lot like saffron. The flavor may be a little different, but it does the job of adding color and a beautiful fragrance reminiscent of chocolate and tobacco.
However, if you’re using safflower to get the same taste as saffron, you may be out of luck there. Safflower is a lot milder than saffron and tastes virtually bland after being cooked. It’s the best substitute to use as a garnish.
1 Tsp. Saffron = 3 Tsp. Safflower
Annatto is an orange-red spice, derived from the seeds of a species of rainforest tree native to the tropical regions of Mexico and Brazil. Its most common application is food coloring as it imparts a similar color to dishes as saffron, ranging from yellow to orange. Annatto also gives dishes a fragrant peppery and nutty-sweet smell.
Annatto can give a hint of nutmeg to the final product but also has a sweet and peppery flavor that emulates saffron in all recipes. By using annatto as a substitute, you sacrifice neither the color nor the taste. The only disadvantage with annatto is that it’s hard to find, despite being cheaper because of which it is sometimes also called the “poor man’s saffron.”
Using annatto can be complicated because it comes in the form of seeds. If you’re only planning to season your recipe, you can dry and crush the seeds. However, if you plan to use annatto to flavor your dish, you will need to steep the annatto seeds in water and oil for about half an hour, strain them, and then add the liquid to your recipes.
1 Tsp. Saffron = 1 Tsp. Crushed Annatto
#4. Sweet Paprika
Sweet paprika is a variant of the paprika spice that you can find on the aisles of spice racks at most grocery stores. You can use regular paprika as a substitute for saffron too, but only in spicy recipes because paprika has a vibrant spicy flavor. Sweet paprika would make a closer substitute for saffron in terms of taste.
Paprika can dye your dish with a slightly stronger color than saffron. If you’re planning to use regular paprika, remember to adjust the amount of chili or other spicy ingredients the recipe calls for to balance things out.
1 Tsp. Saffron = 1 Tsp. Paprika
If you’re preparing an exotic curry or gravy, you don’t have to look any further than cardamom for a strong saffron replacement. A staple spice in Indian and Pakistani cuisine, it gives heat, balance, and complexity to all kinds of curries, ranging from sweet to spicy. You’re likely to find cardamom seeds at Asian supermarkets.
Cardamom can replace saffron in a multitude of recipes. It has a unique sweet, piney, and nutty flavor, accompanied by the fragrance of fresh garden herbs. However, using too much cardamom can make a dish taste acrid, so remember to use this ingredient in moderation.
1 Tsp. Saffron = ½ Tsp. Cardamom
#6. Marigold Flowers
Marigold is a flowering plant that belongs to the sunflower family. They’re round, soft, bouncy, and burn a bright reddish-orange, sometimes burgundy or yellow. Marigold is the most aesthetically stunning substitute you can use for saffron.
The flowers are dried and grounded into powder for use as a coloring agent. The powder gives dishes a similar color to saffron, and it’s flavorless, so you don’t have to worry about it altering the taste of your final product.
Although it lacks in flavor, marigold has some valuable attributes in the nutrition department. It’s a good source of anti-inflammatory and antifungal agents that boost the immune system and help ward off diseases.
1 Tbsp. Saffron = 1 Tbsp. Marigold
Cumin is a spice made from the dried and grounded seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant. With a nutty, mildly spicy, earthy, and warm flavor, it’s used in numerous cuisines around the world. It lends a distinctive aroma and color to dishes like stews, rice, and curry.
You can find cumin in almost every grocery store as it’s a popular ingredient. The only issue with using cumin as a substitute for saffron is that it lends an unwanted earthiness and citrus flavor. To counterbalance this, you can mix cumin with sweet paprika or some ground basil.
1 Tsp. Saffron = ⅔ Tsp. Cumin