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Saffron Substitute


Below is a saffron substitute list to use in place of saffron in your favorite paella recipe and for other dishes. Saffron is a bright red spice famous for providing paella with its coloring. What happens when you run out of saffron in the middle of your recipe? Check our list below and pick the best option that works for you.

small wooden spoon filled with bright red dried spice, glass bottle with red label "afghan saffron"

What Is Saffron?

This spice, also known as the most expensive spice worldwide, is a seasoning made from the crocus flower, aka the saffron crocus. The interior section of the flower, the stigma, is collected then dried, creating the saffron threads found in most local grocery store options. 225,000 flowers are needed to make each pound of dried stigmas for saffron. This high rate of required flowers is the reason behind the high cost of the spice.

This spice acts as a food coloring and flavoring agent for a wide array of recipes, including different rice dishes. Saffron adds a slightly bitter flavor to dishes and is mainly grown in Iran. This spice has a fascinating history with many uses ranging from hair dye to perfumes. It was so highly desired that the king disallowed the use of the herb to dye hair as there was a concern of a shortage.

Saffron provides an earthy and sweet flavor with hints of a flowery, fruity taste. It’s important to purchase “real saffron” from reputable companies as some provide a dupe in its place to keep costs down. A noticeable difference in taste and color will be vital to identifying the lower quality version.

Types of Saffron

There are multiple varieties of saffron available, each grown in a different location worldwide. Some common types include Spanish Superior and Cream; these originate in Spain and offer a more subtle flavor than saffron found on grocery store shelves. Other varieties exist in Italy, New Zealand, France, and even the US. Each type of saffron offers a slightly different flavor, though only those with sensitive palates will notice a difference.

Saffron Substitutes and Alternatives

1. Sweet Paprika

Sweet paprika is an excellent option to replace saffron. It provides a sweet taste like saffron adds and a slight peppery flavor. You’ll also find a fruity taste and subtle bitterness. Plus, it offers a similar color for dishes. Out of the three varieties of paprika, smoked, spicy, and sweet, this type provides the most similar taste to saffron.

This spice, created from dehydrated peppers, is versatile. You can use sweet paprika as a replacement in nearly all savory recipes that call for saffron. However, it does not bode well with dessert recipes. Use sweet paprika in spice rubs, sauces, creamy dishes, and a garnish on deviled eggs.

You can combine smoked paprika and sweet paprika before use in recipes for those seeking an even closer taste.

Pros
Sweet paprika is easy to find at grocery stores and is known as the standard paprika, especially in the US. This spice adds a similar flavor and color to savory recipes. Paprika is relatively affordable and can be found in spice aisles at grocery stores.

Cons
The flavor is not an exact match, limiting the recipes. It also is not ideal for use in sweet recipes.

Cooking Tip:
Add ½ teaspoon of paprika for 5-7 threads of saffron, adjusting to your taste preference.

2. Annatto Seeds

Annatto seeds, also known as poor man’s saffron due to their lower cost, offer a complex flavor similar to saffron with floral notes, a peppery, nutty taste, and sweetness. These seeds produce a bright red color, like saffron, in cooking. These seeds and saffron share other similarities, like their usage as a food coloring agent and previous use as a dye for other products like textiles.

The achiote tree makes these seeds. These achiote trees are found in South American and Central America. When purchasing annatto at the store, the seeds and a ground version are typically available to choose from. Opt for the seeds if possible, as they provide a fresher, more intense flavor.

This replacement works well in stews, soups, marinades, and seasoning for various meats. Like paprika, this option does not work well for sweet recipes.

Pros
Annatto seeds lend a complex taste to recipes, similar to saffron. It also offers bright red color, and you can use it in many dishes that call for saffron.

Cons
It is not a perfect flavor match for saffron, and it can be challenging to find them and ground annatto at the store. Using annatto seeds adds an extra step as they will need to be ground or soaked, then pressed to create a usable paste.

Cooking Tip:
Use 1 teaspoon of annatto powder for every 10 strands of saffron.

3. Smoked Paprika

Smoked paprika is another good substitute for saffron. This delicious seasoning brings a smokey, spicy flavor to the table that sweet paprika lacks. While offering a somewhat different flavor from saffron, it imparts a complex taste that bodes well with some recipes.

Like the above options, smoked paprika is not a contender for desserts. It’s also not as commonly found in stores as sweet paprika, so a special spice store may need to be the source for this replacement. Use smoked paprika to flavor sauces, soups and to garnish foods.

Pros
This swap offers a unique taste with some flavor notes that mimic the taste of saffron. It also adds a red color to dishes, though a darker red than saffron.

Cons
The smoky taste of this paprika limits the number of recipes. It also does not work well in sweet dishes.

Cooking Tip:
Start with ½ teaspoon for every 10 strands of saffron and add more as needed.

4. Turmeric

Turmeric is one of the best saffron substitute options because of its similar earthy taste and bright color. While saffron provides a red hue, turmeric offers a golden-yellow pigment to recipes. This spice works well for both sweet and savory recipes, unlike other options. Other flavor notes include a trace of bitterness and peppery taste.

This spice does lack the sweetness and flowery flavor provided by saffron. Turmeric also offers a much stronger flavor, limiting the number of recipes. This spice is pulled from the ground like a root and shares a relation with ginger.

Use turmeric for rice dishes, stews, and curries. This spice is widely available and also budget-friendly.

Pros
This swap shares flavor notes with saffron, including an earthy, bitter, peppery taste. While different, it will add a bright color to recipes. You can use turmeric for both sweet and savory dishes.

Cons
Turmeric powder creates a different flavor in dishes, especially with its stronger taste that lacks sweetness. Because of this, it’s not suitable for all recipes.

Cooking Tip:
Use ½ teaspoon to replace about 50 strands of saffron.

5. Bay Leaf

Bay leaves might not seem likely to replace saffron due to their vastly different taste. However, they work in a pinch if you’re looking for a way to add flavor to soups and sauces. Bay leaves also add a delightful aroma to recipes, like saffron.

These leaves provide a minty, piney, slightly bitter, and peppery taste. While they share some similar flavors, there will be a difference in taste in the final recipe. There are also a limited number of recipes that can incorporate bay leaves as a swap.

Pros
Most people have a jar of bay leaves ready for use in their kitchen. They provide a unique taste to recipes that include similar flavors as saffron. You can use these leaves for a pop of flavor in soups and sauces.

Cons
These leaves will not add a bright color to dishes. They also offer an intense flavor that is much different from saffron. You cannot include bay leaves in desserts.

Cooking Tip:
Use 2-3 bay leaves in place of a pinch of saffron, making sure to remove the leaves before consuming the dish.

6. Safflower

Safflower, aka Mexican saffron, is another excellent swap for saffron. This spice has a subtle, sweet, smoky taste. Compared to saffron, the taste is much milder, meaning you will need more seasoning to mimic the flavor.

Using safflower allows chefs to create a yellow color in recipes. It also offers a very similar appearance to that of saffron. You can use safflower to replace saffron in paella, other rice dishes, and stew.

Pros
This flavoring agent is an excellent replacement in recipes in terms of color. It’s also much more affordable than saffron. Plus, it provides a sweet flavor.

Cons
Safflower has a very mild taste that has different flavor notes beyond sweetness. It does not mimic saffron perfectly, and its uses are limited.

Cooking Tip:
Start with a 1:1 ratio and increase to your desired taste.

7. Cardamom

Cardamom is an excellent swap for those seeking a spice with a complex flavor, like saffron. This spice does provide a similar bitterness and fruity taste; however, other flavor notes are present, including a mintiness and a woodsy taste.

This spice is also versatile in its uses, as it bodes well with both sweet and savory dish options. Cardamom is an excellent option for baked goods, rice dishes, curry, sausage, and even lentil recipes. Using cardamom as a swap offers many recipe options that other alternatives don’t provide.

Pros
This swap provides a similar taste in recipes, including a bitter, fruity flavor. It’s easy to find in grocery stores and adds a complex taste to dishes.

Cons
Using cardamom will alter the flavor of recipes because of its additional flavor notes, meaning it will not be a good swap for all saffron dishes.

Cooking Tip:
Start with four pods of cardamom or about ¼ teaspoon of ground cardamom for recipes that require saffron; add more if needed.

8. Marigold Flowers

Using marigold flowers to replace saffron adds a floral, citrus taste with a spiciness. These flower petals also add vibrant golden color to dishes. You can use these flowers more as a food coloring agent with a very subtle taste.

To create a more similar taste, you can add other spices into the recipe with marigold flowers. However, they will lack the flavor that saffron typically adds.

Pros
Marigold flowers provide a similar, bright color to dishes. While they do offer some similar flavors, they are very mild.

Cons
Use these flowers only as a way to color dishes, like rice. This swap is not a good substitute in terms of flavor due to its incredibly subtle flavor.

Cooking Tip:
Use a 2:1 ratio to substitute marigold flowers for saffron.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is There a Cheaper Substitute for Saffron?

Yes, there are multiple options for a cheaper saffron replacement, including turmeric, safflower, and marigold flowers. Combining turmeric, lemon juice, and paprika provides a DIY saffron substitute with similar color, and similar flavor notes that saffron adds.

What Does Saffron Taste Similar To?

Turmeric provides the most similar taste to saffron. As saffron offers a complex flavor, it is challenging to find an exact flavor match for saffron. Though, turmeric powder does have a slightly bolder taste.

Is Saffron Similar to Turmeric?

Yes, they are similar. Both spices add a lovely color to recipes and are often used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Though other flavor notes differ, they also offer a similar earthy flavor. It is common to hear turmeric referred to as “golden saffron,” especially since the word “turmeric” was created from a Persian word meaning saffron.

What Can I Use Instead of Saffron in Paella?

Turmeric will work as a saffron substitute in paella, along with paprika and annatto seeds. All three spices will provide a similar color in a paella pan. However, they will not mimic the flavor of saffron perfectly. These spices work excellently, though there will be a noticeable flavor difference.

What Does Saffron Do in Cooking?

Using saffron in dishes adds a pop of color and a deliciously complex flavor. It also provides a pleasant aroma in recipes.

Summary

Whether you’re looking for a replacement for saffron due to its high cost or because you’ve run out, there are plenty of options available that you can use in its place. Turmeric is a top saffron substitute, especially in paella. Annatto seeds are another excellent option to use in a variety of dishes.

Taste test the above swaps and see which choice appeals most to you. Each option offers its pros and cons, with some even able to mimic the beautiful color of saffron.

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Natalia | Flavorful home
Natalia is a recipe developer, food photographer, and home cook. She started Flavorful Home to document easy real food recipes perfect for busy families. She loves creating flavorful and nutritious meals while keeping the cooking process simple and joyful!

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