Saffron Copycats and Substitutes

Saffron copycats - one is poisonous

Turmeric on a old wooden chopping board, with a old scoop
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Saffron is the world's most expensive spice by weight. It's native to South East Asia but was brought to Greece and cultivated. It comes from the saffron crocus which is a small purple flower that blooms in spring. The spice is so popular that in the 1400's a fourteen-week long war was fought over the theft of a shipment of it. Herbal health remedies that date back over four-thousand years use saffron as the main ingredient.

It was used to treat over 90 ailments. Saffron not only has a distinct flavor it's vibrant red color makes it easy to spot in dishes. While it's remained a popular spice for centuries the high cost of true saffron has caused many fakes to enter the market. Here's how to spot the differences and what to substitute when you just can't find the real deal. 

Fake Saffron Copycats

American saffron or Mexican saffron is actually safflower, a member of the Daisy family and the same plant from which we get safflower oil. Although it's dried, edible flowers do impart the characteristic yellow color to foods, it has no flavor and is not a saffron substitute candidate.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa), also known as Indian saffron, is an honest substitute for saffron, but it is a member of the ginger family. Use turmeric sparingly as a saffron substitute since its acrid flavor can easily overwhelm the food. Turmeric is also used to stretch powdered saffron by unscrupulous retailers.

A warning about Meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale): This unrelated plant is poisonous and should not be confused with saffron.

Saffron Substitutions

Unfortunately, there is no truly acceptable substitute for saffron. Its distinctive flavor is a must for classic dishes such as paella, and bouillabaisse.

If your recipe calls for saffron, do yourself a favor and use the real thing to fully appreciate the intended result.

However, if you absolutely must substitute, a combination of 1/8 teaspoon of turmeric plus 1/2 teaspoon of sweet Hungarian paprika may be substituted for 1/4 teaspoon of ground saffron. 1 teaspoon of crushed safflower florets may be substituted for 1/4 teaspoon of saffron for color, but don't expect much flavor, if any. 10 to 15 threads of saffron threads ground in a spice mill will equal 1/4 teaspoon saffron. Alternatively, grind or crush the threads in a mortar and pestle. For color, steep 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons annatto seeds in hot water or oil until the liquid is bright yellow in color. Strain and discard the seeds. Use the yellow liquid in the recipe. As a last resort for color only, combine 2 drops yellow food coloring + 1 drop red food coloring in the recipe liquid. This will impart no flavor whatsoever. Substituting turmeric in equal measure for saffron is not recommended. The turmeric is strong and pungent. It could ruin the dish.

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