Saffron can bring a dish to life with its vibrant reddish-orange color, its musky, astringent flavor profile, and soul-warming aroma. Paella, bouillabaisse, risotto, and pilaf all benefit from this spice. However, the scarcity of saffron makes it too expensive for some home cooks - especially if you only need it for one recipe.
In this article, we'll list some useful alternatives to saffron threads, which are more affordable. Keep in mind the suggested options won't perfectly mimic the pungent, earthy taste. If you want authentic paella, then you'll have to invest in the real thing.
Saffron substitute hacks
Turmeric is referred to as the "saffron of the Indies." Shonky spice merchants have been known to lace saffron with turmeric to reduce their costs. If you're cooking a dish that needs color, then turmeric is a good option.
Use turmeric sparingly as a backup ingredient. Its acrid flavor will taste "out of place" in large quantities. Paprika will complement turmeric nicely by providing a more well-rounded flavor. For every ¼ tsp of turmeric, use ½ tsp paprika.
Although safflower sounds a lot like saffron, they are actually from different families. Safflower won't give you the pungent flavor or aroma offered by saffron; but, it does provide a similar vibrant color for your food.
To use safflower as a substitute, use 5-8 times the amount to achieve a similar color in slow-cooked seafood, soup, or any other savory dish that uses liquid.
Note: Some stores in the U.S. sell Mexican Saffron, which is made from safflower and doesn't have a hefty price tag. We recommend processing this product in a spice grinder or food processor then adding to food in powder form.
Annatto is known as "poor man's saffron" and makes an excellent saffron replacement, although it does take a little more work to use it. Add one teaspoon of annatto seeds to a quarter cup of water (or vegetable oil) and allow them to steep for 30 minutes. Strain the liquid and use it in dishes like risotto or paella; you'll need to reduce the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup to allow for the annatto liquid.
Related reading: What are the best annatto oil substitutes?
4. Marigold flowers
Yellow marigold flowers are simple to grow, or you can buy a fully grown plant from a local plant shop. Pick off the petals and dry them in the microwave for 15 seconds at a time. Then crush into a powder using a mortar and pestle.
Use marigold flowers in any dish that calls for saffron for achieving a similar color. Use equal quantities of this ingredient as a starting point then add more if needed.
Spices offer unique flavor, making them tough to substitute for. Saffron is no exception. If you only need a substitute to provide your meal with color, then turmeric, safflower, marigold flowers, or annatto are all inexpensive alternatives.
If you need the color, aromatics, and flavor of saffron, then your best option is to use saffron. The delicate threads may look expensive, but you can get a lot of use out of them if you follow this advice: steep it overnight. It takes a long time for the flavor of saffron to release. By soaking it overnight, you can get away with using half the saffron that the recipe calls for.
Do you have a cheap ingredient that works well in place of saffron? Let us know in the comments below.