Saffron Substitute: The Ultimate List

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This list of 5 amazingly delicious spices that can be the perfect saffron substitute.

Keep reading to find out what to do when you need a saffron substitute.

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What is Saffron?

Saffron powder is a spice that’s been used throughout history as a cooking agent, natural dye, and perfume (source). The Bronze Age is how far saffron dates back to 3000-1200 B.C. (source)

Zafaran is the name saffron comes from, which is Arabic for yellow source). In traditional medicine, saffron has helped treat seizures, vomiting, insomnia, dental pain, liver disease, spasms, and many other ailments (source).

saffron threads displayed on a table

Where Does Saffron come from?

Saffron powder comes from dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower (source). It is said to have originated in Iran (source).  

What color is Saffron?

Saffron’s golden yellow color may sometimes look more orange depending on the stamen’s color (source).

yellow safforn powder in a black jar

Why is Saffron Powder so Expensive?

If spices were royal, then saffron would be king.

Saffron powder is the most expensive spice in the world (source).

Why?

It takes more than 225,000 Crocus flowers to produce one pound of saffron (source). There’s no doubt that harvesting saffron takes a lot of work for only small amounts.

What does Saffron taste like?

Some describe saffron as being slightly metallic and bitter (source).

Others say saffron tastes like honey (source). Saffron is also said to have an earthy taste, intense, and fruity flavor (source). All of these descriptions show the complex flavor in the taste of saffron powder.

How to Cook with Saffron

To taste its bold, distinctive flavors, you can buy saffron in powder form or in whole form– also known as saffron threads. Recipes that call for saffron require just a pinch because it doesn’t take much to flavor up your dish (source)

It’s popular in seafood dishes like paella, bouillabaisse, and Indian cuisine (source). Tomato sauce, rice, stew, and risotto are examples of foods you might make with saffron powder (source)

Indian food dishes displayed on a dark background

Saffron Substitute List

Because saffron is costly and not always easy to shop for, it may be absent from your spice rack. If your recipe calls for saffron, you can create a delicious dish with a saffron replacement.

Let’s be real, there isn’t an easy substitution for this one-of-a-kind spice. 

It’s still possible to mimic its color and flavor by using another spice in your recipe. Why use a saffron substitute? The answers are simple. A saffron substitute might be easier to find in stores and is likely much more affordable. 

The following ingredients may make suitable saffron substitutes:

  • Safflower
  • Tumeric
  • Annatto
  • Cardamom
  • Marigold Blossoms

Safflower

You may be familiar with safflower if you’ve ever cooked with safflower oil. Safflower spice comes from the dried petals of the flower, Carthamus tintorious (source, source). The spice is often used as a good substitute for saffron and has been nicknamed “the poor man’s saffron” and “Mexican saffron” (source, source).

this saffron substitute is safflower oil and dried safflower displayed on a white background

Safflower vs Saffron

Though their names are similar sounding, safflower and saffron come from different plants. Safflower powder is more of an orange-red color compared to the yellow color of saffron. Even so, safflower can still leave your dish with a pretty yellow hue. It takes a lot more safflower to impact food color compared to saffron (source)

Flavor-wise, it only takes a small amount of saffron to season your recipe. If you use safflower as a saffron substitute, it will take a more generous amount to give your dish a similar flavor (source). The two spices differ in taste, with saffron’s honey flavor and safflower’s slight sweet chocolate notes (source)

Turmeric

Turmeric spice comes from the root of a plant belonging to the ginger family (source). It’s widely used in Jamaican, Indian, Thai, and Nepalese cultural cuisines. Turmeric has been studied for many health benefits — especially its anti-inflammatory properties. 

Turmeric powder in a bowl with turmeric root displayed on a dark background

Turmeric vs Saffron

Turmeric and saffron add similar yellow, a vibrant color to foods, even in modest amounts. If you are looking for a good option to color your dish exactly like saffron, you can add a bright red spice, paprika to your turmeric (source).

While some describe the taste of saffron as earthy, subtly metallic, and nutty, turmeric is peppery and somewhat bitter (source). Ground turmeric is a proven substitute for saffron and has been used to stretch saffron powder (source)

Annatto

Annatto is also known as achiote and comes from achiote tree seeds (source). It has many uses in Latin American, Jamaican, and Filippino cuisines (source). Annatto seeds serves as a natural coloring agent in many commercial food products including yogurt, ice cream, and cheese (source)

this saffron substitute is annatto powder in a wooden bowl on a dark background

Annatto vs Saffron

Annatto is nutty, sweet, and peppery in taste (source). Vibrantly colored red-orange, annatto powder has a history of use as a food dye like saffron (source). It’s best to boil annatto in liquid producing an extract to add to your recipe (source)

Cardamom

Cardamom is a spice that comes from a combination of various plant seeds that grow in India (source) and has a distinctive flavor. It’s commonly used in Indian and Nepalese cuisine (source). Cardamom is in the top 3 most expensive spices worldwide (source).

cardamom displayed in a white spoon

Cardamom vs. Saffron

Saffron spice flavors desserts like ice creams and rice puddings. Cardamom differs significantly from saffron because it is not at all bright in color. Unlike the other saffron substitutes mentioned, cardamom is peppery, citrusy, and pungent flavor. It may be the only appropriate saffron substitute for a dessert dish. 

Marigold Blossoms

Marigold blossoms are flowers that come from the Calendula plant (source). Its petals are the only edible part of the flower (source).

this saffron substitute is dried marigold blossoms in a glass jar spilled on a white background

Marigold Blossoms vs. Saffron

The marigold blossom’s petals are bright yellow in color and can be used to brighten any dish like saffron (source). The flavor profile of the marigold is peppery, spicy, and tangy (source)

Similar to turmeric, marigold blossoms are also used to stretch saffron powder to deceivingly be sold as pure saffron (source). The petals should be dried and ground to be used in cooking (source)

Bottom Line

It is tough to duplicate the unique flavor of saffron. Four of the five saffron substitutes have great potential to mimic saffron’s beautiful hue. The benefits to using a saffron substitute is that it is easier to purchase at the store and it’s much more affordable. 

If your recipe calls for saffron and you don’t have any, these five options can serve as a good saffron substitute in your savory dishes.


saffron substitute pinterest graphic

Authors

  • Lisa Hugh is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Leap Therapist. She has a Masters of Science in Healthcare Administration. As a a Food Sensitivity Expert, her passion is helping people with complex medical and nutrition needs find food and groceries that are safe and enjoyable. Lisa enjoys helping clients in her private practice.

  • Gabrielle McPherson is a Registered Dietitian and Freelance Writer. Gabrielle has a masters degree in Clinical Nutrition and a bachelors degree in Dietetics. She has worked extensively with pediatrics and works as a freelance health and nutrition writer.

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