Saffron is a unique spice that imparts a distinctive flavor, aroma and color to the dishes to which it is added. It also is the most expensive spice in the world because of the labor-intensive methods required to collect and process it. For this reason, many people seek out less-expensive substitutes. These include spices such as paprika, annatto and turmeric. One important thing to note, however, that most of the spices typically used as a saffron substitute replicate the color of the spice only. There is no spice or combination of spices available that can duplicate the flavor and aroma of this spice.
Paprika is a common substitute for saffron. It can easily reproduce the color that saffron creates and does not have a harsh flavor that could affect the recipe. This spice is created by grinding down peppers that have been dried. Cooks should avoid using smoked paprika when substituting for saffron, because the flavor could be very strong.
Turmeric is often suggested as a replacement for saffron in Indian cuisine. It is slightly more yellow but does an excellent job of tinting the color of the dish. Great care needs to be taken when using turmeric as a saffron substitute because it can have a very strong and distinctive taste that can throw off the flavors of the dish. Grinding a specific root related to ginger creates turmeric.
Annatto seeds can be used as a substitute in Spanish cooking. The seeds can be added to hot oil and cooked briefly, which will give the oil a bright red color and impart a subtle pepper flavor. The seeds are harvested from the flowers of the achiote trees of Central and South America.
Safflower, also called Mexican saffron, is a relative of the common daisy. It can very effectively color sauces and other dishes the same shade as saffron. This is a popular replacement because it has no taste. It is made from the ground flowers of the safflower plant.
Kasubha is a spice that comes from a safflower plant that grows in the Philippines. It looks like saffron and will impart the same color, although it has no taste. Sometimes falsely advertised as being true saffron, kasubha is made from the flowers produced by a plant of the same name. It is not real saffron.
Marigold blossoms can also be used as a saffron substitute. They are able to effectively approximate the color of saffron and add no awkward taste to the recipe. The blossoms can be diced and added, or dried and then crushed into a powder.