I have been remiss in posting ingredients and spices lately and one of the most important spice in medieval cooking (besides cinnamon) is saffron. Now I am guilty of substituting faux saffron for the real thing. The budget gets frowned upon when I add an $18 of true saffron to the list that is less than 1/4 an ounce, especially when that whole bottle will be used for ONE dish. So here is the skinny on true saffron and how to overcome sticker shock if needed.
Saffron vs. Safflower
Saffron (Crocus Sativus) is made from the the stigmas of the crocus plants. These stigmas have a subtle flavor and add an amazing gold color to any dish. To get the saffron taste, take a small pinch and let soak overnight in hot water. Saffron fanciers believe that true saffron is a must for all paella, bouillabaisse and risottos (let alone any dish that calls for the good stuff).
Mexican Saffron, also known as Safflower, is made from the dried petals of the safflower plant (Carthamus Tinctorius). The safflower will color any dish it is in with a lovely red/gold tincture much like the real saffron. Some claim there is little to no flavor. Personally I disagree. There is a subtle flavor that is imparted with the coloring when the petals are added. No, the two are not related and the there is a huge price difference between the two.
So what do you do if you can’t get real saffron? Well there are a couple of things. You can go with the Mexican saffron for color and a different subtle taste OR you can combing 1/8 tsp turmeric with 1/2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika. Mix these two together and add sparingly. This is a substitute that is sort of in the parking lot of the ball park of real saffron. A substitute but not a perfect substitute.