Saffron is well known as the worlds most expensive spice. I find it hard to imagine cooking with saffron regularly as I would squirm each time I saw the cost of what I was adding to a pot of otherwise quite inexpensive weeknight paella for the family. I wanted to find out a bit more about it in order to replace it, so thought I would share my successes.
Saffron is the plucked stigma from the crocus sativus flower, commonly known as saffron crocus. When the stigma are dried they give a flavor that is subtle, some way hay like but with a bitter after note. The main attraction to saffron being the vibrant yellow color a few strands will add to any dish.
What is Saffron
90% of the World’s saffron is grown in Iran and exported. It is incredibly time consuming to take the stigma by hand from the crocus flower. Each flower has three red, female stigma and these need to be plucked without damaging the rest of the rest of the plant. Saffron crocuses also only flower for a short window each year, with a specific time of day for harvesting making it even harder to ensue a good crop. All of these factors make it very expensive to purchase.
If I was asked, what does saffron taste like? I would find it hard to give a definite answer, subtle in flavor. Earthy, sweet almost like honey. It is the combination of flavor, aroma and the distinct color that make it so authentic in dishes like Paella and Bouillabaisse. The way we cook with saffron is the key to our success to imitate the qualities. I love that color and evocative aroma of a large dish of paella being prepared on the seafront in Southern Spain, but we can try to recreate this on a budget from our homes.
What Can I Use Instead Of Saffron
- Safflower is an ideal replacement for saffron as it is so much more affordable, sometimes referred to as Mexican Saffron you can buy it as dried petals. We recommend buying Safflower Herb as petals as you will be able to use it as you would do normal saffron, just in much larger quantities – around 6 times the amount. So, what is safflower? It originates from the asteracea family and is therefore not related to saffron at all. It has been a crop since 2500BC in Mesoptamia and is still commercially grown for it’s beneficial oil. Used widely in cooking including as a main ingredient in vegetable oil, you can also use the petals in herbal teas, rich in color and health benefits.
Safflower does not have the taste profile of saffron. It is far more subtle, almost bland. This means it can be added reliably for the vibrant yellow color, but not to enhance flavor. So think about using it in combination with other herbs and spices to replicate the benefits of saffron. A pinch of saffron would need about six times as much safflower for color, then add a teaspoon of honey for the sweetness. This can be added to white wine when you brown off some onions and safflower.
- Poor Man’s Saffron – Annatto grows in abundance in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Sometimes called achiot the seeds can be ground and used in oil infusions or as a flavor added during the cooking of dishes like paella. The vibrant color that achiot seeds produce is really appetizing and you will find the subtle flavor does not interfere with a dishes deeper aromas and taste. It is not expensive and can be stored for many years.
Mix the seeds with boiled water and let them infuse during the steeping process for around 30 minutes. The colored water can then be added into paella or bouillabaisse. This will be something you can scale up or down depending on depth of flavor required but measurements should be in the ratio of one cup water to 2 heaped teaspoons of seeds. If you want to make up an oil the same quantities will need to be added and the seeds gently toasted in the oil over a medium heat. Once the seeds sizzle and crack toss them in the oil and remove from the heat. Wait until the oil has cooled and remove the seeds. Decant into a sterilized air tight container and store in a cool dry place for up to 3 months.
- Turmeric is a great substitute for the color that you can develop when using saffron, but real caution should be exercised as turmeric has a very distinct flavor of it’s own. One which will not complement all dishes, paella or bouillabaisse would be overwhelmed by the aroma alone. You will find a little goes a long way with regard to color, so mix in with other spices to develop the subtle, sweet earthy flavor. A classic dish for saffron is a traditional risotto, there is a good reason to use turmeric here as it picks the color up, whilst also adding a little background flavor.
- Paprika will work well with the Turmeric as it has a sweeter taste profile. Mix half a teaspoon of paprika with half a teaspoon of Turmeric for a more subtle replacement for saffron. Use as an ingredient for the water you are using or at the earlier stage when browning any meats, or onions.
- Marigold / Calendula petals can be harvested and dried through the year, however they do store well once dried. We grow ours easily in the UK and they thrive in warm, sunny spots even self seeding. What makes them a great substitute for saffron is how easily they will bring the strong color to dishes. We have an article about how easy marigolds are to grow and harvest as well as dry the petals.
- In Paella and similar dishes using the color and flavor from chorizo is a a common substitute for the more expensive saffron. Nowhere near as vibrant in color the use of cured meats can benefit a dish in other ways as it adds to the depth of flavor if added when browning of other meats.
- Finally and not surprisingly for a website dedicated to homegrown herbs, why not think about growing your own saffron crocuses?
Expensive herbs and spices can cost a lot more than the price of the ingredient. Air miles will always be an issue when we are buying herbs and spices from abroad. However one major concern that you may have is workers conditions and it is great to see that spices like vanilla and saffron are now available from Fairtrade producers too.
The actual cost will never be reduced for this labor intensive crop, but a little goes a long way indeed. So thinking about using your substitutes until your crop grows enough to harvest can be a great option.