Saffron is the world's most expensive spice, that is derived from the flowers of the saffron crocus or Crocus Sativus. This flowering plant is a member of the genus, Crocus, and the plant family Iridaceae. The flowers produced by the Crocus Sativus contain three red stigmas, which are dried to be used as a spice.
As a spice, saffron is mainly used in the Central Asian, Indian, Iranian, Arabian, Turkish, and European cuisines. As a spice, it is usually described to have a hay-like sweet taste, while its aroma is said to be reminiscent of honey and hay. Crocus Sativus is actually a native of Southwest Asia.
This spice is available as threads and as a powder. It can take more than two hundred thousands of hand-picked stigmas just to make a pound of saffron, which is enough to explain why it is the most expensive spice in the world. As far as substitution is concerned, one can substitute its color with a few other spices, but its flavor is not imitable.
This spice is valued not only for its color, and the unique earthy flavor, but also for its health benefits. It has antioxidant properties, and so, this spice can play a significant role in preventing diseases and disorders that can result from the cellular damage caused by the free radicals. Saffron contains carotenoids, which also exhibit antioxidant properties. This spice may have anti-cancer properties, and it can lower the level of cholesterol in the body. It can also prove beneficial for neurodegenerative disorders, depression, insomnia, asthma, indigestion, heartburn, and memory impairment.
As mentioned already, the distinct aroma of this spice cannot be substituted. While substituting saffron, it should be kept in mind that only the color this spice imparts to a particular dish, can be replaced with a few other spices. One such popular spice is turmeric. Turmeric is the herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, and its roots are used to prepare the yellow turmeric powder, which is often used as a substitute of saffron. Turmeric can give yellow color to a dish. But you have to use a greater amount of turmeric, usually 4 times as much as saffron, to get the same color.
Like turmeric, American or Mexican saffron, which is many times passed off as saffron, can also be used to substitute this spice. It is actually not saffron, but safflower, a plant of the daisy family, from which the safflower oil is obtained. The flowers of this plant are used in cooking. However, they do not have any flavor, and so, these flowers cannot substitute the earthy aroma of saffron. Another flower, whose petals are used to give color to foods, like risottos, pastries, and fish stews is marigold. Marigold blossoms can also be used to substitute this spice in paella.
Annatto, also called 'roucou', is used as a food additive, and is derived from the seeds of the achiote tree. It is used as a coloring, as well as a flavoring agent. It is commonly referred to as the 'poor man's saffron'. The flavor of the annatto seeds is slightly peppery and sweet. It mainly features in Latin American, Filipino, and Caribbean cuisines. It is also used in coloring confectionery, butter, and cheese.
So, turmeric, safflower, marigold blossoms, and annatto can be used to substitute the world's most expensive spice, though they cannot imitate its unique flavor. While using this spice, it should be kept in mind that the powdered saffron is more likely to be adulterated or diluted with turmeric or other food additives. This is the reason why the threads are preferred over the powder by expert chefs. But if you find this spice only in the powdered form, then be sure to use it in lesser amounts than the threads. The actual saffron threads are red with orange-colored tips. If you cannot find the orange-colored tip, then they are more likely to be the dyed threads or petals of other flowers.