What’s A Good Saffron Substitute? Let’s Be Real

Finding a saffron substitute isn’t easy because of its unique flavor, aroma, and beautiful color.  While flavor can't be easily replicated, color can.
Saffron strands in a gray plate.

The Best Saffron Substitutes: Does anything really compare?

Finding a saffron substitute isn’t easy because of its unique flavor, aroma, and beautiful color.  Learn about what to consider when picking an alternate.

Saffron is a spice with a unique flavor – a saffron substitute is not easy to come by. a remarkable spice with its unique flavor and distinct aroma,

It is a spice often used in Indian cuisine, particularly in Indian sweets like Yogurt Shrikhand, drinks like Saffron Milk, and savory dishes like biryani.

Saffron in water.

 It’s also the world’s most expensive spice.  Do you know why?

The distinctive flavor and complex aroma of saffron come from the stigmas of the saffron crocus flower, which are harvested by hand and then dried.  It takes a lot of flowers to produce even a small amount of saffron, which is why it’s so expensive.

Saffron is a spice I have used extensively and I LOVE it. I wanted to give some perspective from an Indian cook as I see many blog posts on this from people who don’t seem to be familiar with the spice and are recommending super weird options that could ruin your dish. 

Particularly, I’d like to note the types of recipes in which saffron substitutes can be used in a pinch.

kesar pista cupcakes indian fusion
Saffron Pistachio Cupcake

I’ve covered a lot of substitutes for commonly used ingredients in Indian cooking. 

In those situations I could find a good option for a quick substitute in a fix: Tamarind Paste Substitute, Gram Flour Substitute, Ghee Substitute, Paneer Alternative and Kashmiri Chili Powder Substitute.

In all the above instances I could find a decent alternative, but the quest for an alternative to saffron is similar to finding an alternative to asafoetida – tough!

There are a few saffron substitutes out there, but the real truth is none can quite match the taste AND aroma of the real thing.

Saffron strands in a plate.

What is the taste you are looking for?

The flavor of saffron is complex and distinctive, with a delicate balance of sweet and bitter notes. Some people describe it as floral and slightly honey-like, with faint bitter notes.

Bloom a few strands to make Saffron Water and give it a try!

If you taste a strand without blooming it, you’ll note mostly a bitter taste.

Exploring Alternatives I’ve Seen Suggested

I’ve seen the combination of turmeric and paprika recommended as a suitable replacement for saffron.  If read the flavor profile you may think it makes sense, but believe me, it is NOTHING like the taste of saffron.  

Saffron blooming in milk.

So, here’s a quick look at some of the suggestions I’ve seen out there:

#Spice NameFlavor ProfileNotes On Substitution For Saffron
1TurmericMild, earthy, and slightly bitter flavor, with a slightly pungent aromaYou can get a yellowish color if you are looking for it but the flavor is totally different. Only use a very small pinch if you want a yellow color.
2PaprikaMild, slightly sweet, and slightly smoky flavor, with a distinctive red colorNot comparable
3CardamomSweet, floral, and slightly spicy flavor with hints of citrus and mintNot comparable. It’s complementary to saffron though.
4CuminWarm, earthy, and slightly nutty flavor Not a good option
5SafflowerMild, earthy, and slightly sweet flavorAn option when you need the color.
6Marigold spice (calendula)Mild, slightly bitter, and slightly floral flavor Can explore it as an option when you need the color.
7Annatto (achiote)Slightly sweet and peppery flavorCan be used for color – used as a natural food coloring
8Food coloringOf course just for color! Restaurants will sometimes use food coloring just to pass their food as having saffron!
Soaked in saffron in yogurt.

A Closer Look At Commonly Suggested Alternatives

Safflower – A Close Substitute for Saffron?

Safflower is often called the “poor man’s saffron” because it’s a cheaper option that comes close (kind of, not really) to saffron’s taste and color. Safflower has a similar color to saffron, which makes it a great substitute for dishes that require a vibrant color.

 However, it does not have the same unique flavor as saffron.

Turmeric powder in a small bowl.

Turmeric – An Alternative for Color

Turmeric is a common spice in many households and is a great substitute for color. Turmeric has a bright yellow color that makes it an excellent replacement for saffron’s yellow hue. 

If you’ve had Turmeric Milk you know that it tastes nothing like Saffron Milk

The flavor of turmeric just doesn’t compare! It is a member of the ginger family and has a very earthy flavor. Seriously, don’t use turmeric for flavor, its not a good substitute.

Turmeric milk with turmeric powder to the side.

Marigold Flowers – Color

Can be used in small quantities to achieve saffron’s color but they’re not always easy to find in local grocery stores.

Annatto Seeds or Powder  

This comes from the seeds of the achiote tree.  It has a mildly sweet and peppery flavor, so not a good flavor-alternative but can provide some color!

Food Coloring 

If you’re looking for a quick fix for saffron’s bright yellow color, food coloring can be an option. 

However, it doesn’t provide any flavor to your dish.

So these may not be the best saffron substitutes, but they can be used as a quick fix when saffron is not available if you are looking to bring COLOR to your dish. 

Three kesar pista ice cream scoops in a small white bowl with a green cloth in the background.

So, What’s The Best Substitute For Saffron?

There is no perfect substitute for saffron because its flavor cannot be precisely replicated by any other ingredient.  You can find substitutes for the color saffron provides, but not the flavor.

It has a slightly sweet and floral taste with hints of bitterness and a slightly earthy aroma.

So, What Do You Do For Flavor?

If you’re looking for the closest possible substitute for flavor, your best option is to skip it, honestly. If you can get some then use a small amount of saffron. A little goes a long way, so you only need a pinch or even a few strands of saffron for the flavor.

Sorry, that may not be the answer you are looking for but it’s the truth!

Saffron milk in a glass.

Some considerations when using an alternative

  1. Is saffron the primary flavor?

If you are looking to make saffron ice cream, saffron milk, or saffron rice where it is the main ingredient, there is definitely no substitute!

  1. Is saffron one of MANY ingredients?

     For example, in biryani, it is used to add color, aroma, and subtle flavor to the top layer of rice.  In this instance, it is totally okay to either skip it or use one of the alternatives listed above in a small amount for the color.

Honestly, unless it is a main ingredient it is okay to skip it if you don’t have any easily accessible.  

Saffron strands in a gray plate.

What’s A Good Saffron Substitute? Let’s Be Real

Shilpa Joshi
Finding a saffron substitute isn’t easy because of its unique flavor, aroma, and beautiful color.  While flavor can't be easily replicated, color can.
No ratings yet
Total Time 5 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Indian, indian fusion
Servings 1 serving
Calories 2 kcal


  • 1 measuring spoon


Substitute for COLOR

  • tsp safflower strands, turmeric powder, annatto, food color Turmeric has an overpowering taste so be careful not too add too much.

Substitute for Flavor

  • 1 serving saffron strands There is no good substitute for flavor! See post for details


  • Substitute your choice of ingredient to use for color substitute of saffron.


There is no perfect substitute for saffron because its flavor cannot be precisely replicated by any other ingredient.  You can find substitutes for the color saffron provides, but not the flavor.


Calories: 2kcalCarbohydrates: 0.03gProtein: 0.1gFat: 0.1gSaturated Fat: 0.1gMonounsaturated Fat: 0.04gCholesterol: 1mgSodium: 1mgPotassium: 1mgVitamin A: 4IUCalcium: 2mg
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

4 thoughts on “What’s A Good Saffron Substitute? Let’s Be Real”

  1. Your suggested substitutions are interesting .I also have a suggestion :
    As you know saffron is a plant that has different parts . There is a part that has the color of saffron but with cheaper rate that we Iranians use it sometimes instead of saffron that is expensive.
    It has a little aroma of saffron ,too.
    Test it ,I’m sure you will like it ☺️

    1. Hi Samaneh – That’s interesting thank you for sharing. What is the name of that part if I were to look for it?
      I don’t think anything can replace saffron as I tried to convey but if it’s from the same plant that is a great idea!

  2. Omg I saw someone suggested curry powder as a sub once!!! Wtf! This is the truth. There’s no really good sub 💯

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