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Ask a Foodie: Why Is Saffron So Expensive? Are There Substitutes?

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Saffron threads suffuse food with a dusky, exotic flavor and golden color.

Q. I love the color and flavor of saffron, especially in paella, but it’s expensive. Can you substitute other seasonings when it is called for in a dish, such as achiote or turmeric?     — K.W.

A. Saffron is one of the world’s more exotic flavorings, used since ancient times and difficult to harvest. The thin threads are pricey, but the flavor is really what makes it all worth it. It has a dusky perfume that suffuses anything from delicate rice dishes or hearty stews. It’s delicious with fish or chicken and a perfect seasoning for slow-simmered lentils or garbanzo beans.

If it is just a pale golden or slightly orange color you want to impart to food, and all you have on hand is turmeric, a pinch or two of this less-expensive spice, in dried form, is OK to use. Fresh turmeric (from the rhizome, part of the root system, of a tropical plant) has a more pungent flavor, and is good on its own terms, not just as a substitute for saffron.

Achiote (from annatto seeds, from a tropical evergreen plant)  is mild in flavor but will yield a more reddish-orange color. It is used to color some cheeses, for instance, as an alternative to artificial colorings that might cause allergic reactions.

The reason for saffron’s expense is first that while the saffron crocus grows in places throughout the planet, it doesn’t grow just anywhere. The stigma, or threads that are the female part of the plant’s reproductive system, must be painstakingly hand-harvested from the blossom of a type of crocus plant. But a little saffron goes a long way, and it’s a valued addition to any good cook’s spice cabinet.

Photograph by Bonnie Walker

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