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I am a big fan of paella, amongst other uses for saffron. However, it can be a very difficult and/or expensive spice to obtain.

What good substitutes exist?

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"Luckily" you don't need all that many strands, and you can get good deals on it if you mail order. –  Kerrizor Jul 27 '10 at 22:11

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

While this isn't a substitute, you can get better deals on saffron and make it go further.

First of all, do not buy it at a normal grocery store. It tends to be very expensive there. Instead go to a farmer's market (not one that happens every Thurs evening at the local church, but rather the big store). I'd imagine most major cities will have one or more. Atlanta has at least 4. Saffron is much, much cheaper at the farmer's market.

Second, thoroughly grind the saffron before using it. This will help the saffron more completely flavor a dish, requiring a smaller amount of saffron to get the flavor.

A quick Google suggested Tumeric, but I can't really imagine that working, nor did a lot of the comments on the internets.

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I hadn't thought of grinding it myself, nor of alternate sources: the only places I've found it are Trader Joe's and Lowes Foods (neither of which has it in large containers, nor for [relatively] low prices... thanks! –  warren Jul 27 '10 at 17:56
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Using tumeric is only for color, not flavor. Tumeric is more basic and bitter and less fragrant (though very healthy and good in some dishes). –  Ocaasi Jul 27 '10 at 18:11
    
Well turmeric definitely does have a flavor, but of course it's nothing like that of saffron. That very debate: whether turmeric could or should be considered a "substitute" for saffron - was the cause of one of the first great Usenet flamewars I can remember from the early 1980s. –  Pointy Jul 27 '10 at 20:44
    
I am totally and completely baffled by what is meant by "not one that happens every Thurs evening at the local church, but rather the big store". What is "the big store"? –  nohat Jul 27 '10 at 20:57
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@nohat: We have two types of farmer's markets that occur near us. The first is a group of local farmers and small businesses (organic soap, local meat, food cart) that gather once a week to sell their wares, usually in a parking lot. The other type is a huge warehouse with many of the same elements as a standard grocery store, including meat counters, seafood, cheese, etc. They generally have huge selection and less common ingredients than you'd find at a grocery store (lots of mushrooms, rare spices, ethnic foods). Here's the one I go to: dekalbfarmersmarket.com/ydfmtour.htm –  yossarian Jul 27 '10 at 21:10

The simple answer? None.

If you want to get the reproduce the color of saffron you can use annatto or turmeric. These will change the flavor of your dish though.

There is no replacement for the flavor of saffron. This is one of the contributing factors to it's high price.

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As for flavor, there really isn't a substitute.

Infusing saffron strands in a warm acidic liquid such as white wine will help extract the maximum flavor.

Whole saffron while more expensive than ground is a better use of your money as you know you're getting only saffron. Ground saffron, while not usually found in stores in the U.S. may be sold by mail order or overseas and is usually less expensive because it's being cut and blended with other spices such as turmeric but won't have the same flavor.

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This isn't an ideal solution, but I recommend giving safflower a try. The dried flowers, not oil.

Using dried safflower in combination with a small quantity of both turmeric and msg, you can somewhat reproduce the effect of saffron as far as color and flavor enhancement. This can work in chicken soup / chicken pot pie. Do it when you're in a pinch for money, don't have saffron on hand, or if you want to try a slight variation on a recipe you already like.

I'm mildly surprised no one else has mentioned safflower. So, I'm posting this answer more to contribute information than to try and win in the best answer contest. Because, truly, there is no good substitute for saffron - especially when you're talking my favorite dutch pot pie recipe. Which (there being no good substitute), is I assume why so many vendors get away with charging so much for saffron. That, along with an involved production process.

Supposedly, (wikipedia, etc) some refer to safflower as "bastard saffron". But, safflower is far less strong, has a sage-y presence (imo) rather than savory like saffron. Hence my suggestion to use it with Accent/msg if you're trying to reproduce that savory flavor with meats. The main thing that's nice about safflower is the similarity in color and (somewhat) appearance of yellow-orange-red fibers which is similar to saffron, perhaps especially when cooked in a wet dish like soup or saucy meat.

Aside from the issue of mimicking saffron, in my experience, using dried safflower is best when cooking Mexican dishes - such as shredded chicken for enchiladas and burritos. This would be more for a yellow/red effect with paprika and green chile, and not for a full green salsa verde recipe. Safflower has become a staple ingredient in my cupboard. In the Western USA, it's available in many grocery stores in small 0.25 oz packets. For other regions, it looks like you can order it on Amazon (in bulk).

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