Saffron Copycats and Substitutes

Turmeric on a 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, but it's also 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. This is how to spot the differences and what to substitute when you can't find the real deal. 

Fake Saffron Copycats

American saffron or Mexican saffron is 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 appreciate the intended result.