Looking for the best saffron substitute for your next recipe? We’ve got plenty of herbs and spices that you can try to match saffron’s distinctive color and flavor. Some substitutes manage to pull off one or the other, while others do both!
Substitutes for Saffron
Saffron is a delicate, expensive spice that isn’t quite as widely used in home kitchens as it could be. This is probably because many people see it as a spice too fancy for their cooking. You will often find saffron as a key ingredient in restaurants, such as those that serve saffron rice.
We feel like saffron should have more of a place for home cooking! If you’re confident using spices, saffron can bring plenty of flavor and color to soups, pastas, curries, and rice dishes.
You’ll often find saffron as an ingredient for these types of high-heat, high-moisture recipes. Saffron needs to steep to unleash its flavor, and recipes that naturally include plenty of heat and moisture are great for using saffron.
What is Saffron?
Saffron, when cooked, lends a distinctive golden color to whatever you’re cooking. Classic saffron recipes include pilaf rice or saffron risotto.
Saffron itself has a red color. The “threads” of saffron you can buy in the grocery store come from the saffron crocus flower. The threads come from the central part of the flower, called the stigma. This is what we separate from the flower before drying out for culinary use.
Saffron is one of the more expensive spices. This is because it must be harvested by hand, so it’s more expensive to produce.
Why Would You Need a Saffron Substitute?
The chief reason many home cooks look to substitute something for saffron is its price. It’s not a frequently used spice, and adding saffron to your grocery shop can really make the overall cost add up. It can be a bigger investment than most cooks want to make for a single meal.
However, if you’re looking at getting saffron for a recipe, we recommend using saffron imported from Asia or the Middle East. This is the real deal, high quality saffron that is worth investing in. You’ll want to store it in a cool, dry place for up to six months.
If, however, you’re not quite up to buying imported saffron yet, we’ve got a few substitutions for you.
The Best Saffron Substitutes
The first factor to consider when seeking a saffron substitute is the spice’s distinctive color. The next thing to worry about is saffron’s unique taste and aroma.
Saffron’s flavor and aroma is very subtle, but very distinctive. It’s hard to replace, but there are several close substitutes that will fulfil the role of saffron in seasoning a dish even if they don’t taste exactly the same.
1. Turmeric and Paprika
This substitute manages to cover both the realms of color and flavor. It’s a combination of two popular spices: turmeric and paprika.
Turmeric’s golden color is similar to that of saffron, but it has a softy, earthy flavor. That’s why we’ll add some paprika to the mix to boost the flavor palate of your dish. The combination of paprika and turmeric’s subtle earthiness will nicely emulate the flavor of saffron.
❗ You’ll want to mix ¼ teaspoon turmeric + ¼ teaspoon paprika to replace a ¼ teaspoon (or less) of saffron. This can be used in any recipe.
You can also use turmeric on its own. This is more of a color substitution, as turmeric’s relatively mild flavor will do little by itself to flavor a dish. It will lend a mildly earthy flavor to your recipe, however, so note that turmeric does have some flavor to it, just not as much as saffron. It will, of course, lend its strong yellow color to the recipe, so it’s a good color substitute.
You can use turmeric in a 1:1 substitution for saffron.
Paprika has a natural red color like saffron, even if it won’t turn the rest of your dish golden. It is a pretty common spice for home cooks, and you probably have some in your pantry right now.
Paprika will give you more flavor and less color than turmeric. By itself, paprika has a subtle smokiness and a touch of heat to lend to your recipe. Its red coloring will permeate the other ingredients, although not to the extent of saffron.
We recommend that you begin with paprika in a 1:1 substitution for saffron, adding more to taste if need be.
4. Curry Powder
Premade curry powder is actually a mixture of several spices, and can lend both some rich golden color and a complex flavor to your dish.
Turmeric is a key ingredient in most curry powders.
Curry powder has a distinct, unique flavor that you can use instead of saffron for many soups, sauces, and rice dishes.
We recommend that you use about half as much curry powder as you would saffron. This will establish a new flavor profile, so taste your dish as you go, adding more curry powder in small amounts if need be.
Cardamon seeds are popularly ground up to add flavor and a touch of color to many dishes. Cardamon’s aromatic, earthy flavor profile is similar to that of saffron, and will happily do saffron’s job in a pinch.
We recommend simply using cardamon in a 1:1 ratio where you would use saffron, but only in dishes that do not rely on saffron for coloration.
Cumin is a great spice used in many cuisines, including Asian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern recipes.
Cumin has more bitterness than saffron, but apart from that it’s a similar flavor. You can counteract this bitterness by including a little sugar with your cumin.
We recommend using ⅔ teaspoon of cumin and a touch of sugar to replace a teaspoon of saffron.
Dried safflower is made from safflower petals, similar to saffron. It has a similar color, but a milder flavor.
You can use Safflower herb in a 1:1 ratio in place of saffron in any recipe.
8. Marigold Spice or Petals
Marigold is another flower you can use to replace saffron. Marigold spice is not easy to find, whereas marigold petals are, if you check out your local nursery.
To turn marigold petals into spice, dry them out in the sun and grind into a powder.
Use marigold spice or powdered petals in a 1:1 substitution ratio.
These flowers are similar to marigolds, with yellow color and subtly spicy flavor.
All you need to do is dry your petals out and grind them up as with the marigold.
Dried calendula can be used in a 1:1 ratio to replace saffron in any dish.
Annatto looks more like paprika than saffron, but its deep, aromatic flavor can be a useful substitute.
Start by using ground annatto in a 1:1 ratio to replace saffron, adding more to taste if need be.
11. Food coloring
You can use food coloring, which is flavorless, instead of saffron if you aren’t relying on its flavor for your recipe.
You could also add food coloring to one of the spices that does not resemble saffron if you want the classic golden saffron hue.