12 Best Substitutes for Saffron: Cooking with Alternatives

Want to get the same flavor, color, and aroma of saffron without the hefty price tag?  Here are some of the best substitutes for saffron, with suggested measurements.

saffron in a wooden small bowl with two wooden spoons containing saffron.

What is saffron?

Saffron is the tiny red stigma and styles that come from the saffron crocus.  Yep, that’s right, they come from a flower.  Many people know this tiny herb as the flavor and color in paella.  But in fact, saffron can be used in anything from rice dishes like biryani, to curries, soups, salads and even teas.

What does saffron taste like?

Saffron has a distinct flavor that is unlike any other and often hard to describe.  It brings an aroma of fresh hay, grass and floral notes combined with the taste of earthiness, honey, and a slight bitterness.  The bright red threads leave behind a beautiful yellow hue when used in any dish.  

But as many of us know, saffron can be expensive. 

Why is saffron so expensive?

Saffron is expensive due to the amount of labor it takes to hand pick each of the tiny threads from the crocus flower.  The work is extensive, intensive and expensive, leading to its exorbitant price tag of £5.00 to £10.00 or around $10 to $20 per gram (US).  

To help offset this price but still find a way to create a similar taste profile and color in your recipes, I have put together a great list of saffron alternatives.

And while none of them can replicate saffron’s distinct characteristics exactly, they can help you come pretty close.

12 Best Substitutes for Saffron when Cooking

1. Safflower
In many places safflower is referred to as “poor man’s saffron”.  Some of the qualities that make it similar are that it also comes from a flower and has some of the floral notes like saffron.  

However, while saffron is said to have honey notes, safflower actually brings more of a chocolate tone to dishes it is used in.  Safflower has a sweet taste and a slightly red color, and can be easily used as a saffron replacement.

Suggested Measurement:  1 tsp Safflower = 1 tsp Saffron

2. Turmeric + Paprika
In this mix of spices, turmeric brings the distinct yellow saffron color and earthy flavor, while paprika brings some of the sweetness you would typically find in saffron.  Using this spice combo can definitely be a good saffron alternative.

Suggested Measurement: ¼ tsp Turmeric + ½ tsp Paprika = ½ tsp Saffron

I used both turmeric and paprika, instead of saffron to make this delicious Chicken and Chorizo Paella

A large pan with paella decorated with lemon wedges on a bright blue background.

3. Cardamom+Turmeric
As we move into this combination substitute for saffron, Cardamom is the main flavor contributor.  Cardamom is known to have a bold floral flavor with hints of citrus, which is similar to the floral flavors of saffron.  Adding some turmeric as well will lend some earthiness and color to your dish.  

Suggested Measurement:  ½ tsp Cardamom + ¼ tsp Turmeric = ½ tsp Saffron

4. Turmeric Powder 
Some people love to just use turmeric powder as a replacement for saffron.  With this alternative, you will definitely achieve the distinctive yellow color and earthiness of saffron.  

However the flavor will be missing any sweetness or floral notes.  Keep in mind that turmeric has a strong peppery flavor to it, so using too much may affect the flavors of your dish. 

I recommend starting slow and adding more according to taste.  Also, try combining it with other sweeter, more floral spices and herbs to try to get closer in flavor.

Suggested Measurement:  ¼ tsp Turmeric Powder = ½ tsp Saffron

To make this Easy Vegetable Rice Pilaf Recipe I used turmeric to create the vibrant yellow colour and add flavor.

Golden Vegetable Pilaf rice in a white bowl on a pink background with small bowls of pomegranate and lime wedges and some chopped mint.

5. Sweet Paprika
Sweet paprika has a lovely earthy, sweet flavor.  Compared to saffron, paprika can deliver on the earthiness and sweetness.  But without combining it with another spice or herb, you will not be able to achieve the floral hints or distinctive yellow color that saffron produces. 

For this Creamy Sweetcorn Orzo with Prawns recipe, I added some fragrant paprika as a great low cost alternative to saffron.

Sweetcorn and orzo topped with paprika covered prawns. Garnished with lime wedges and parsley.

Suggested Measurement: 1 tsp Paprika = 1 tsp saffron (start with this measurement and add more as needed.  Paprika can be a somewhat mild spice.)

6. Curry Powder
Due to the depth and complexity of flavors in curry powder, this could be a great substitute for saffron.  Curry powder is typically a mixture of spices that can include turmeric, cardamom, cumin, fenugreek and cinnamon.  With the different spices already combined, you will find that curry powder can bring some similar flavors of saffron and even add more depth and complexity to your recipe.  

I used curry powder and turmeric to make this Chicken Katsu Curry


Suggested Measurement: Start with a little:  ¼ tsp Curry Powder = 1 tsp saffron (then add more as needed.)

7. Marigold Spice
This peppery and citrusy spice can be used instead of saffron when in a pinch and is often referred to as imitation saffron.  Alone, you will not get the earthiness, but you could try combining it with a little turmeric to see if you can get even closer to the saffron flavor.  Playing around with flavors is how we discover new ways of making our recipes dynamic and delicious.

One thing to keep in mind with marigold spice is that it can be hard to find.  Try looking where health foods and/or ethnic ingredients are sold.

Suggested measurement:  ½ tsp Marigold spice = ½ tsp Saffron

8. Dried Calendula
Calendula has a somewhat spicy, peppery taste with hints of bitterness that will remind you of a milder saffron.  Too much can ruin your dish, so definitely start with a small amount if you decide to use it as a saffron substitute.   

Often, calendula is used as a natural sedative, so please read up on this herb before using it in any recipe you make.  You may need to look for dried calendula at your local health food store.

Suggested measurement:  ½ tsp Dried Calendula = ½ tsp Saffron

9. Cumin
Cumin has a sweet, warm flavor that is slightly nutty.  The earthiness of the spice is a great substitute for saffron and can be used in dishes with a little bit of honey to recreate a saffron-like flavor.  

Suggested measurement:  ⅔ tsp Cumin + ¼ tsp honey = 1 tsp Saffron

For this Nando’s Spicy Rice to create the flavors and intense yellow colour, I used cumin, tumeric and paprika.

Nando's spicy rice topped with fresh cred chilli slices and coriander.

10. Annatto
Annatto is slightly nutty, sweet, and peppery.  While the flavors may not match saffron well, the color it will add to your dish will be highly reminiscent.  Annatto is often used to add natural color to food and can do the same for any recipe that you want to have that yellow saffron color.

Suggested measurement: ½ tsp annatto = ½ tsp Saffron

11. Sumac
Sumac, while being a bit tart and sharp, also has hints of sweetness, earthiness and some floral notes, making it a great substitute for saffron.  However, the color is pink and therefore will not give your dishes a yellow color but a slightly pink color.

Due to its sharpness, you will want to try adding just a little bit of sumac to your dish so you don’t make your dish overly tart. Sumac can be found in a health food store or possibly a store that sells ethnic foods.

Suggested measurement: ¼ tsp Sumac = 1 tsp Saffron (This will however make your dish quite tart, so start off with just a little and add more as needed.)

12.  Food Coloring
And last on the list, if you are just looking to get that characteristic saffron color, I suggest adding a bit of food coloring to your dish.  If you are already using an ingredient that will make your dish yellow, such as turmeric or annatto, then be sure to only use a little bit of food coloring.

Suggested measurement: 1-2 drops

Tips for the best result

Taste as you go.  There is nothing worse than adding too much of a spice and not being able to reverse it. So when trying out some of these new flavor replacements for saffron be sure to take it slow and taste as you go.  Figure out what measurements work with your recipe.

Try combining some of the above suggestions.  If you find you like the floral notes of cardamom and the earthy, nuttiness of cumin, try combining them in small amounts to see if you like the combination of flavors in your dish.

Buy quality spices.  When so much of the flavor profile of your recipes is dependent on herbs and spices, it makes sense that good cooking needs good spices.  You can save money by finding substitutes for saffron, but you should still buy quality spices as a best practice for cooking in general.

Know why you are using saffron in your recipe.  If saffron is used in your recipe as a coloring agent, then it will be easy to just swap it out for some food coloring.  But if the recipe really needs the bitterness, then opting for something like Calendula may be just what your recipe needs.  Knowing your recipe will help you decide which saffron substitute will work best to replace the saffron.


Is there cheap saffron?

While there is no such thing as “cheap saffron” (because saffron is just expensive), there are plenty of ways to create a similar taste and color using cheaper herbs and spices.  I have listed 12 options above.

Is there an imitation saffron?

No, saffron and cumin are not the same.  Saffron is the styles and stigmas taken from the crocus flower and has flavors like grass, hay and honey with a slight bitterness.  Cumin however is the dried seed of the plant Cuminum cyminum and has more of a sweet nutty flavor.

Is saffron the same as cumin?

No, saffron and cumin are not the same.  Saffron is the styles and stigmas taken from the crocus flower and has flavors like grass, hay and honey with a slight bitterness.  Cumin however is the dried seed of the plant Cuminum cyminum and has more of a sweet nutty flavor.

What herb can replace saffron?

While there is no one herb that can replace saffron, using several herbs and spices in combination can help create a similar taste profile and colour.  Turmeric and Paprika are the most common substitute combinations.

No perfect substitute for saffron

In the end, the distinct flavor profile of saffron makes it very hard to replace in a recipe.  This is just one of the reasons it costs so much.  The other reason being that it is very hard to harvest.  And though there is no perfect substitute for saffron in the world, you can most definitely create your own dynamic flavors by bringing out your inner chef and exploring the diverse flavors alternate herbs and spices can offer that are reminiscent of saffron’s qualities.

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