A Saffron Crocus – Picture courtesy of Wikipedia
A Saffron Crocus – Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Saffron and Safflower

Saffron is widely known as the world’s most expensive spice. Luckily, a little of it goes a long way and just a tiny pinch will lend a dish a beautifully vivid golden-yellow hue and a taste that is all but indescribable.

Safflower, in contrast, is much cheaper, unrelated, and with a completely different taste profile and capacity to color foods. Surprisingly though, its is passed off as Saffron, often fraudulently, with such frequency that it is sometimes referred to as ‘Bastard Saffron’.

Now, to be fair, Safflower is actually a pretty useful spice in it’s own right, and you can sometimes use it to augment a small amount of expensive Saffron, but it pays to be aware of the difference so that you end up using what you intended to purchase. Luckily… this is not difficult at all.

What is Saffron?

Saffron is harvested from a particular species of Crocus  known as Crocus sativus. These days, most of the Saffron commercially available is produced in either Spain or Iran (and fistfights can erupt over which is better), but, for centuries, Saffron was harvested in England. Indeed, the Essex market town of Saffron Walden is named after the crop and has recently started to grow it once again.

If you look at the introductory picture above, you will see three scarlet filaments protruding from the bloom. These are the stamens of the flower and, once harvested, (which must be by hand), they will become ‘threads’ of Saffron. There are only ever three of these stamens and it takes between 50,000 to 75,000 flowers to yield a pound of the spice. This, quite obviously, explains why Saffron is so darned expensive.

So… What is Safflower?

A Safflower - Picture courtesy of Wikipedia
A Safflower – Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

The Safflower, illustrated above, is a thistle-like plant with a number of uses. Like Saffron, it has been used as a dye, both for textiles (Saffron is especially known for dyeing the robes of Buddhist Monks), and also as a food colorant. It is used, for example, to give color to some butter substitutes, like margarine.

As a culinary spice, the dried petals of the flower are used. If you look closely at the picture, you can see some of these are already turning a much darker color, and when purchased, the much-shriveled petals will be a pretty vermilion. These can be added in pinches to soups, stews and rice dishes, and they even make a pleasant herbal tea.

Telling the difference between Saffron and Safflower?

Saffron and Safflower compared
Saffron and Safflower compared

Saffron and Safflower have extremely different aroma and tastes but you needn’t get as far as sampling to immediately tell the difference. In the above picture, you can see two forms of Saffron on the left (powdered and whole threads), and a jar and small dish of Safflower on the right. On close inspection there are differences in the ‘threads’ (which we will look at in a moment), but the most obvious difference is the volume of each for a given price.

The packet of powder and the plastic container of Saffron threads are similar in price (roughly about $4 and $6 at the time of purchase as I recall). For those prices you could easily purchase enough Safflower to fill, or just about fill the large plastic jar on the right. Basically, if you see good-sized plastic bags labeled Saffron going for a very low price, it is Safflower!

This is actually not all that uncommon. I have been in a number of stores (two in Ottawa come immediately to mind), where bags of the stuff about the size of a bar of soap were on sale, clearly identified as ‘Saffron’, for about $5. In all honesty though, I have reflected on this and I believe that, in at least those two cases, the shopkeepers themselves genuinely did not know that what they were selling was not as advertised. In any event, I did buy some as the price was pretty decent for Safflower anyway.

Buying and Using Powdered Saffron

A Package of Powdered Saffron and its contents
A Package of Powdered Saffron and its contents

In the above picture you can see an opened package of Saffron in Powdered form. The powder in the dish beside it amounts to no more than one twentieth of a teaspoon and represents the entire contents of the package.

It is a little bit cheaper buying Saffron this way (although a little more fiddly to use), and I find that a single package is sufficient for one dish, with the given amount adequately coloring and flavoring 4 to 6 cups of stock, and any dishes, especially rice dishes, created therefrom.

Saffron and Safflower Threads

Saffron and Safflower threads.
Saffron and Safflower threads.

Threads of both Saffron and Safflower are shown here for comparison and, as you can see, the saffron is definitely more delicate and subtly colored than the much coarser and garishly orange-red safflower. Generally, I find that a ¼ to ½ of one gram of the threads is enough for any usual recipe for 2 to 4 persons, and will give a nice golden yellow hue while being quite apparent in the taste. For reference, the plastic box shown in this picture, and also the third one in this post, contain a single gram.

What does Saffron taste like?

Saffron threads in close-up
Saffron threads in close-up

Here you can see actual ‘threads’ of saffron in close-up. The aroma, which is chiefly the same as the taste is very strong, but not easy to describe. Wikipedia has described the taste as being sweet, and ‘reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes’ but I cannot agree. Basically, saffron does have some honey notes but the dominant flavor component is unique to the spice and, to my mind, has a quality not unlike a certain clear, stiff, cellophane-like material once used in packaging toys and the like. That description will sound a bit unappetizing, I imagine, but the taste is pleasant and very aromatic. I just can’t, unfortunately think of a better comparison, so you will just have to experience it yourself.

How does Safflower taste?

Safflower threads close-up
Safflower threads close-up

Safflower, in contrast to Saffron, has an aroma that is very rich, but more suggestive of a sweet, chocolaty, tobacco. Another difference is that, unlike Saffron, the taste is much weaker than the smell and diminishes when cooked. While Saffron can flavor and color a dish in small quantities, larger amounts of Safflower are needed for color and even more for taste. However, that being said, adding a tablespoon or two of Safflower to a dish that includes Saffron, can improve the appearance immeasurably if not actually adding to the flavor significantly.

Using Saffron in Recipes

Saffron is very often used in soups (notably the classical Marseille specialty, Bouillabaisse), as well as in many Indian Kormas.  It is also a frequent colorant and flavoring agent in countless rice dishes (particularly some Indian Biryanis) and also the western equivalents of Paella and Risotto a la Milanese.

Comments, questions or suggestions most welcome!