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Saffron substitutes – the best ones in the mix!

Saffron substitutes – the best ones in the mix!

Saffron is a famous spice most known for its distinct red-orange or even yellow color. It brightens up any dish by generously adding its own colors. 

It also has a very specific taste—earthy, musky, and a little bit sharp and bitter at the same time.

It’s called red gold for a reason—it isn’t easy to come by and it makes a noticeable difference to any dish.

It’s difficult to find a replacement when it comes to its special taste and aroma, but there are a few substitutes if you’re only focusing on the color. 

Here are some options for a saffron substitute that you can opt for if you run out of the real thing.

Here’s a summary table for these substitutions:

SubstituteSuggested RatioApplication
Turmeric¼ tsp turmeric + ½ tsp sweet paprika per ¼ tsp saffronAdds yellow color, different taste
SafflowerStart with same amount, up to 5-8 times moreSeafood, soups, liquid dishes; grind for blending
Annatto1 tsp annatto seeds in ¼ cup water, steeped, per tsp saffronLiquid-based recipes for yellow-orange color
Marigold FlowersSame amount as saffron, adjust for colorColor substitute, dry and grind petals
A photo of a wooden bowl filled with saffron threads.

Best Saffron substitutes

1. Turmeric

Turmeric is probably the most commonly used spice to replace saffron. They have the same yellow tinge when they’ve been cooked. If you’re using a recipe that calls for saffron because of its color, using turmeric is acceptable. However, they don’t taste very similar when it comes to taste.

Unlike turmeric, saffron tastes much more earthy. Saffron also has a slightly sweeter aroma, while turmeric is more peppery. Combining it with sweet paprika could give you a more saffron-like flavor. 

It adds a noticeable yellowy shade to the recipes it’s used in (similar to turmeric), but also brings its own unique flavor. If your recipe only calls for a tiny amount of saffron, using turmeric should do the trick.

You can even add some paprika when using turmeric, to bring the taste closer to saffron. If you’re adding ¼ teaspoon of turmeric, pair it with ½ teaspoon of paprika.

  • Ratio: For every ¼ teaspoon of saffron, use ¼ teaspoon of turmeric and ½ teaspoon of sweet paprika.
  • Application: Ideal for adding yellow color to dishes; however, the taste differs from saffron.

2. Safflower

You’ll notice that safflower doesn’t have as sharp and sour of a taste as saffron, but, like turmeric, their color is similar. You will have to multiply the amount of safflower, as many as 5-8 times to get the same color, but it does the trick. 

However, be wary that safflower has a slightly pungent smell which could affect your dish.

Safflower works better when you add it to seafood, soups, and liquid-based dishes, because they make it color more distinct. For better results, you can also grind it up before using it to make it more powdery and blend effortlessly.

For measurement, start by adding the same amount of safflower as the amount of saffron required in your recipe.

  • Ratio: Start with the same amount as saffron and adjust as needed, up to 5-8 times more.
  • Application: Best used in seafood, soups, and liquid-based dishes. Grind it up for better blending.

3. Annatto

This intense yellow-orange spice is commonly referred to as a less expensive alternative to saffron. It adds the same color to your dishes as saffron, however, it tastes relatively mild in comparison. 

While you can use it to bring out the same bright hues in your dish, you’ll have to add quite a bit of it to get the same taste. 

In some situations, a large quantity of annatto in a dish can start tasting sour and interfere with the overall aroma and flavor of your food.

Another technique for adding color is to strain the seeds. For one teaspoon of annatto seeds, let them steep in ¼ cup of water for half an hour. This allows you to use the strained annatto liquid in your liquid-based dishes.

  • Ratio: For every teaspoon of saffron, steep 1 teaspoon of annatto seeds in ¼ cup of water for half an hour, then use the strained liquid.
  • Application: Adds yellow-orange color to dishes, suitable for liquid-based recipes.

4. Marigold Flowers

Turmeric is probably the most commonly used spice to replace saffron. They have the same yellow tinge when they’ve been cooked. If you’re using a recipe that calls for saffron because of its color, Again, this alternative works best if you’re only trying to substitute the saffron color. You can crush dried up marigold petals and add them to your recipe. 

First, you have to dry the petals, preferably in a microwave for a few seconds. Next, use a mortar and pestle to grind them into a fine powder. 

For measurement, add the same amount of dried marigold flower powder as the saffron called for in the recipe. If you don’t get the same result in terms of color, you can work your way up and add some more.

  • Ratio: Use the same amount of dried marigold flower powder as saffron; adjust if needed for color.
  • Application: Works for substituting color, not flavor. Dry and grind the petals before use.

Tips and Tricks

It’s extremely difficult to find an exact substitute for saffron because of its rich, distinctive flavor, aroma, and color. To avoid ruining your dish by adding too much of a substitute, start with small quantities.

You may find that mixing and matching some spices will give you a closer taste than one spice alone, such as turmeric and paprika.

Be careful about opting for spice mixes that you can buy at the store. Quite often, they do not have the real spices you want and are filled with artificial coloring and flavor. 

Final Words

If you only use saffron occasionally and are hesitant to stock up on it unnecessarily, these substitutes should work for you. While their tastes differ, they’ll add the same red-orange-yellow color that brings your recipe to life.

A wooden bowl and spoon filled with saffron.