How to Make Paella WITHOUT Saffron

For fans of paella, saffron is often regarded as a necessary ingredient. However, saffron can be quite expensive and hard to get ahold of in some regions. 

Saffron has a rich history, and understanding its use is important when tackling the creation of paella without the spice. In this article, we will explore the purpose of the spice and how to properly replace it. 

Pick a Suitable Saffron Substitute

Because of the expensive and elusive nature of saffron, many people may find themselves wondering how to replace it when making paella. 

The good news is that paella can be made with saffron substitutes. While no ingredient will give the same flavor, spices such as turmeric, paprika, annatto, cardamom, safflower, and pre-made paella seasoning can be used to replaced saffron. 

The main factor to take into consideration when replacing saffron in your dish is the flavor. While there are several substitutes that can be used instead of saffron, many paella fans note that it is near-impossible to recreate the flavor of saffron.

When using a saffron substitute, it is important to note that the main element you will be mimicking is, in fact, the color, and not the flavor. Nonetheless, each of the substitutions does have certain flavors and elements that make them useful in their own right. We will explore 6 spice options to consider as substitutes for saffron: turmeric, paprika, annatto, cardamom, safflower, and pre-made paella seasoning.

Turmeric

Turmeric is widely regarded as the best replacement for saffron in paella. Turmeric belongs to the ginger family. Its flavor can be described as earthy and bitter and is often used in curries. While saffron has a floral and sweet flavor, turmeric is much more bold and peppery. The color of turmeric is where it really shines as a saffron replacement. 

Small amounts of the spice can turn soups and rice dishes to a brightly yellow or orange color. The most common form to find turmeric is dried and turned into a powder. However, fresh turmeric can be better for yielding more color and can be found in a similar root form as ginger. 

Fresh turmeric is certainly better for trying to enhance the flavor of a paella. You will have to use much less of the spice if it is fresh compared to powdered as well. Still, turmeric is most commonly used in paella for its color and not its taste.

Pricewise, turmeric is significantly cheaper than saffron, averaging at about $3 per pound. Fresh turmeric can be more expensive, ranging from $5-$15 per pound on average. Turmeric is recommended to be used alongside paprika in a paella, using a 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric. 

Paprika (Pimentón)

Paprika or pimentón in spanish, is a bright red spice derived from dried fruits and peppers. Paprika is sold in three varieties: spicy, sweet, and smoked. What kind you purchase will affect the overall flavor it brings to your dish. Smoked paprika (pimentón ahumado) is often recommended as a saffron substitute because it will help to mimic the flavor of smoked saffron threads. A combination of smoked and sweet paprika (pimentón dulce) is also useful. 

The flavor of paprika is fairly subtle and is best used in tandem with turmeric. It particularly helps to balance the bitterness of turmeric and bring forth the sweeter notes that can typically be found in saffron. 

While turmeric is primarily going to be the color agent, the paprika will also contribute to the color. Paprika is inexpensive, with 2.5 oz shakers being sold for as little as $0.75. You can buy it online. It is also highly accessible, and sold at most grocery stores and supermarkets. When using paprika alongside turmeric, the general rule of thumb is to use between 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of paprika for every 1/4 of turmeric. 

Annatto

Annatto comes from the achiote tree, most often in seed form. It is harvested frequently in the regions of Central and South America. Annatto is sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s saffron” and can be used both as a seasoning and a dye. It has a bright orange or red color when harvested. 

Unlike powdered turmeric or paprika, annatto requires a bit more preparation before it can be used. The seed has to be either steeped in oil or water, made into a paste, or ground into a powder before using it for cooking. The taste of annatto is described as being earthy and musky. Some even note a sweetness that is reminiscent of nutmeg. 

The color and taste are a great substitute for saffron in paella. Unfortunately, access to the spice may be limited, depending on where you live. Annatto is primarily used in Latin American and Indian regions. Spice vendors are the most likely place to find annatto. Similarly, if your area has markets specialized in Latin or Mexican ingredients, you may find annatto there.

Thanks to the internet, however, annatto can be purchased on Amazon as well. Pricewise annatto is significantly cheaper than saffron, averaging around $1 – $3 per ounce. In paella, it is recommended to use around 2 tablespoons of annatto seeds. 

Cardamom

Cardamom is a less common but nonetheless still useful substitute for saffron. The biggest sacrifice that will come from using cardamom is the color. Unlike turmeric, paprika, and annatto, cardamom does not possess the colorful elements that mimic those of saffron. 

However, the flavor of cardamom is significantly better when trying to imitate the flavor of saffron. The flavor of cardamom can be described as citrusy, spicy, and herbal. Cardamom comes in pod form, much like garlic cloves. However, cardamom skins do not necessarily need to be peeled. The pods can be used whole or ground into a powder.

Using cardamom can also be quite risky, as it is quite easy to use too much. Cardamom is a very strong spice that can easily overpower a dish. It’s best to start with one pod and taste test from there. When using cardamom to make paella, it is sometimes paired with cinnamon. The recommended amount to use is between 2 – 4 pods of cardamom and approximately one half a stick of cinnamon. 

While not nearly as expensive as saffron, cardamom can retail for a fairly hefty price as well. Pods, on average, sell for around $30 per pound, and ground cardamom averages between $4 – $15 per ounce. 

Safflower (Azafran)

Safflower and saffron have many similar characteristics. While similar in name specifically, safflower is actually derived from a different plant entirely that comes from the daisy family. Unlike saffron, which uses the stigmas of the flower from which is derived, safflower uses the petals. Safflower is also known as “Azafran” and originated in the region in and around Mexico. 

Interestingly, over half of the world’s production of safflower, today, actually takes place in India. The color that safflower provides to paella is almost a dead ringer for saffron, making it a great substitute. The flavor as well is rather sweet and similar to the expensive spice. 

The flavor of safflower is regarded as being rather mild, although pleasant. It has been described as floral, herbal, and chocolatey. Safflower typically ranges in price from around $4 – $10 per pound, depending on where it is sourced from. Most recipes that include safflower call for around 1/4 ounce of the spice. 

Paella Seasoning

That’s right – you can buy seasoning meant specifically for paella. 

These types of seasoning are typically imported straight from Spain. They typically include a combination of the following spices and herbs:

  • Garlic
  • Paprika
  • Black pepper
  • Rosemary
  • Salt
  • Saffron extract

If you are looking for an easy fix, no-hassle substitution for saffron, a paella seasoning may be the choice for you.

Here’s a link to a Spanish imported paella seasoning that gets you two packs of 5 for $10. 

Prepare the Rest of Your Paella Ingredients

Adding bomba rice to paella
Adding Bomba Rice to Paella

While saffron or a saffron substitute of your choice may be a crucial element to paella, there are also several other ingredients to consider when making your paella. 

Rice

The rice is often regarded as the most important component of paella. It is important not to use too much nor to overload the rice with too many toppings. The rice should be cooked in a thin layer. The rule of thumb is that the layer of rice should be around 1/2 an inch thick. You will also want as much of the rice touching the bottom of the pan as possible, in order to absorb the maximum amount of flavor.

There are a few variations of Spanish rice that can be used in paella. It is highly recommended to use medium or short-grain rice. Spanish rice is best due to its short and round nature. This allows it to absorb liquid well, as well as absorbing flavor from the liquid. 

You will want your rice to be dry and separated when the paella is complete. Bomba rice is the best type of rice to use when making paella and available at Amigofoods. It is a short grain and maintains a good level of firmness throughout the cooking process. 

Other types of rice include Italian carnaroli, calrose, and valenciano. Primarily what you are looking for is a rice that can absorb a fair amount of liquid while still remaining firm. 

Stock 

The liquid in paella is what primarily provides the flavor to the rice. The best paella stocks will enhance the flavors of the paella and utilize the other ingredients. For instance, a stock for a seafood paella would be best made by using shrimp or other seafood ingredients in the simmering process. 

The actual traditional way to make paella is to use water instead of a stock. The water is added to the sofrito, which in turn ultimately makes a stock out of the sofrito. Nonetheless, stocks are widely used in paella, and a stock made from scratch is regarded as the best method.

Not only that, but the stock is where the saffron substitute will come into play. Traditionally, saffron will be steeped in the stock while the sofrito is made. Therefore, after you have boiled and created the stock, you will want to add the saffron substitute of your choice to your stock. This will help to later bring the flavor and color to the rice. 

Sofrito

Sofrito is yet another key ingredient to a paella. Sofrito is essentially a tomato sauce that gives a foundation to the rice and helps to give more body to the stock. Sofritos are typically comprised of olive oil, tomatoes, chopped onion, and garlic. If you are using a powdered substitute for saffron, this may also be the point at which you add it. 

Other ingredients in the sofrito can include rosemary, thyme, a bay leaf, beans, seasonings such as salt, and sugar. The sofrito will ultimately be the base to your paella and will add a sweetness to the overall savory dish. 

You can find a highly rated paella sofrito online.

Proteins

So you have chosen your saffron substitute, you have made your sofrito and stock, your rice is looking delicious – now what proteins are you going to add? Obviously, if you made the stock from scratch, you probably already have an idea of what toppings you will be using. As we covered, there are different types of paella, from traditional to seafood to mixed. 

What is crucially important is not to make the proteins the centerpiece of the dish. It can be very visually pleasing to have a wide assortment of all kinds of meats and fish atop your paella, but it can ultimately take away from the overall flavor of the rice. 

Remember: the rice is the main event, while the proteins are just the cherries on top. That being said, here are some of your protein options to consider:

  • Chicken
  • Rabbit
  • Duck
  • Pork
  • Chorizo
  • Sausage
  • Shrimp
  • Mussels
  • Snails

Make Sure You’re Using the Right Paella Pan

The name of paella actually comes from the pan in which it is cooked – “paella” is the Valencian word for frying pan. As you may have inferred, paella is prepared in a frying pan apparatus. The best paella pans are wide, round, and shallow. The sides of the pan will be angled outwards, rather than straight up.

Paella pans are shaped in such a way to help evenly cook the rice. The wideness of the pan creates a maximum surface area. This allows for evaporation to happen, giving the dish a crispiness on the bottom.

The size of your paella pan will also determine how many servings your paella will yield. According to Martha Stewart’s website, this is the size to serving ratio of paella pans:

“4 to 6 servings: 16-inch pan

6 to 8 servings: 18-inch pan

8 to 12 servings: 22-inch pan

12 to 20 servings: 26-inch pan

20 to 40 servings: 32-inch pan”

When considering what pan to use, it is also important to note the material the pan is made from. There are three main types of pan material that are commonly used for paella:

  • Carbon steel. Traditional paella pans in Spain these days are made from carbon steel. These types of pans have a high thermal conductivity, which helps to spread the heat evenly throughout the pan. These pans require maintenance to prevent rusting
  • Enameled steel. These pans are made by covering carbon steel with enamel, a material that does not rust. However, the pan must be carefully handled to prevent chipping the enamel.
  • Stainless steel. These pans do not rust but also do not conduct heat as well as carbon steel. 

All three types of paella pans can be found on Amazon. While true paella pans are much more guaranteed to create a good paella, any shallow and wide skillet can be used instead. 

The Reason Saffron is Used in Paella 

Spanish saffron in a wooden bowl
Spanish Saffron

Saffron is a spice that is harvested from a flower called saffron crocus. It is plucked in the form of threads that can be either sun-dried or smoked. The actual part of the flower is called the stigma. This is the pollen germinating part of the flower and becomes what is known as saffron “threads.”

Connoisseurs of the spice will note that there are variations to the flavor and color depending on where it is harvested from. Not only that, but saffron is regarded as a precious crop with many uses. The spice has always held great value throughout human history. 

Saffron in Paella

Saffron is widely regarded as a critical ingredient in the creation of paella. Paella is characterized by a traditional yellow hue that comes from the use of saffron in the dish. Besides the color, saffron adds a distinctive taste and aroma to paella that is highly difficult to imitate. Saffron is typically simmered in stock or liquid before being added to the pan with the sofrito.

The rice of the paella is then added on top, slowly absorbing the flavors beneath it. Traditional paella is recognizable by the distinctive color, flavor, and aroma that the saffron provides. However, as paella continues to become more popularized and globally known, more and more recipes have begun to appear that sub out saffron for more affordable options.  

Origin

Saffron did not actually originate in Spain, despite the Spanish emphasis on using it in many dishes. There are several countries that produce saffron, including:

  • Iran
  • Greece
  • Spain
  • India
  • Morocco 

Saffron is believed to have come from south-western Asia around the 9th century. It is widely accepted that saffron was brought by the Moors when they invaded Spain. 

Today, Iran dominates the production of saffron and produces the majority of the spice that is used worldwide. However, Spain also produces a fair amount of the spice and is considered one of the top producers under Iran. 

While Iran may produce the majority of the world’s saffron exports, some view Spanish saffron as more valuable. This is because the market for Spanish saffron is much smaller, and Spain has tighter restrictions on exports, making Spanish saffron rarer. 

Purposes of Saffron

Saffron is most commonly known for its culinary use. The flavor is described as subtle, floral, and earthy. The spice is regarded as precious by many cultures, with much care going into its cultivation and harvesting. 

Saffron also has several health benefits, as it contains many antioxidants. Throughout history, it has been used to improve many health aspects, including memory, mood, and libido. Different regions of the world have used it for a wide variety of cooking purposes, including in:

  • Rice
  • Sweets
  • Coffee
  • Risotto 
  • Bread
  • And of course, paella

The spice has also been used as a dye, and even a currency at one point in history. Saffron’s many purposes contribute to its overall high value. Even in today’s modern society, the spice is still highly sought after, and a symbol of wealth.

Price

Saffron is notoriously one of the most expensive spices in the world as displayed on Amazon. The spice can be sold for upwards of $500 per ounce. The expensive nature of saffron is largely due to the labor-intensive process that goes into growing and harvesting it. 

Saffron grows from a flower, and each flower only produces a small amount of saffron that must be plucked by hand. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it can take 75,000 flowers to produce one pound of the spice. Thus, the price is driven by the costs to produce thousands of flowers and to cover the labor costs to harvest each and every one of these flowers. The price is, of course, also reflective of the highly esteemed reputation of the spice. 

Paella is a Cultural Staple

Now that we have covered the background and uses of saffron, it is time to focus a bit more on the main dish itself: paella. 

It can be historically traced back all the way to 19th century Valencia, Spain. It may have even originated much earlier than this, but it was in Valencia that it took its most traditional and classic form. The rice-based dish has since become one of the most popular dishes to come out of Spain. Valencia was a hub of rice production, and paella originated as a meal cooked by field workers and laborers. Many chefs and superfans of paella alike are very particular about the way the dish is prepared. However, since its popularization and globalization, the dish has taken many different forms.

Forms of Paella

There are three forms of paella that are the most common and popular that we will explore: traditional Valencia paella, seafood paella, and mixed paella. 

Paella Valenciana – traditional Valencia paella

Paella pan of traditional Valencian Paella
Valencia Paella

Paella Valenciana is the traditional and classic form of the dish. Some food critics would argue that it is the only true paella form. The traditional ingredients for this famous version of the dish include rice, chicken, rabbit, green beans, lima beans, tomatoes, and snails. In the earlier days of Valencia and paella, when the dish was still considered a worker’s meal, the addition of ingredients like chicken and saffron were more of a luxury reserved for special occasions. 

Paella de Marisco – seafood paella

Paella Pan of Seafood Paella
Seafood Paella

Paella de Marisco is one of the most popularized renditions of paella. It entails replacing the proteins of the traditional paella with seafood. Most often seen in the summertime, seafood paellas make great statement dishes for dinner parties and festive get-togethers. The wide variety of seafood and toppings are colorful and vibrant, and not to mention delicious. This paella typically includes rice, chorizo, mussels, clams, and shrimp.

Paella Mixta – mixed paella

Cazuela of Mixed paella
Mixed Paella

Mixed paella is exactly what it sounds like – a mixture of traditional toppings and more modern popularized toppings. This form was largely popularized by restaurants looking to appeal to a wider audience than just the traditional Valencia crowd. This form can include a wide mixture of the toppings in the aforementioned forms of paella, but typically include chicken, sausage, and shrimp. 

Final Thoughts

As we have learned, it is very possible to craft a paella without using saffron. You can follow any paella recipe you desire while substituting out the saffron with the spice of your choice. 

These are the three main takeaways:

  1. The flavor of saffron is not easily imitated. While you may be able to craft a paella with a new and creative flavor, that traditional saffron taste will be hard to recreate without the actual spice. 
  2. The color, unlike the flavor, is fairly easily imitated. To someone unfamiliar with the traditional color and taste of paella, a saffron substitution could easily pass as a true paella. However, paella superfans and food critics will notice it rather quickly. 
  3. Saffron is quite expensive, but also requires only a few threads per dish. If you are unwilling to give up the flavor and distinct coloring of a traditional paella, it may be worth your time to make the extra investment and purchase real saffron.

Cooking, at the end of the day, is all about experimentation. If saffron is too far out of your price range, or perhaps you just do not like its flavor, the possibilities are endless for you to create your own unique version of paella.

So what’s for dessert? Check out Spain’s best desserts that will transcend your tastebuds.

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