Saffron Rice Pilaf

When my friend Kerissa Barron first told me about this buttery rice pilaf, I couldn’t wait to try it. Then she told me it had saffron in it. Uh oh. For some reason, saffron is a spice that sort of tastes like soap to me. Not a big fan. But, I’ll try just about anything once, and in this case, thank goodness. I couldn’t stop eating this saffron rice. Browned in clarified butter, with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, cooked in a saffron infusion, and tossed with nuts and raisins, this rice is the bomb.

Kerissa came over the other day to make it with me. Here’s what she says about it:

Throughout college and beyond, I’ve always loved spending time at my friend Heather’s family home. While it doesn’t hurt that her family lives on a gorgeous bluff overlooking sunny Santa Barbara, or that they keep one of those pantries any cook dreams of, stocked with every size and shape of pan imaginable and five types of baking cocoa, I think one of my fondest memories and one of the many reasons I’m always finding/inventing a reason to visit, is this golden, buttery, delicious rice. I’ve had it on nearly every occasion I’ve visited and with good reason. Whether you are making it to accompany a homemade Indian feast or simply serving alongside a roast chicken from the supermarket, this rice, specked with nuts and raisins, imbued with the golden color of saffron, and fragranced with cardamom, cinnamon, clove and orange can truly hold its own.

Saffron Rice Pilaf Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 40 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 5 to 6.


  • 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads
  • 2 Tbsp ghee or clarified butter*
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 1 small (2-inch) cinnamon stick
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 2 1/2 cups long grain white rice**
  • 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • Zest of one orange (about 1 1/2 teaspoons, packed)
  • 2 Tbsp pistachios
  • 2 Tbsp blanched slivered or sliced almonds
  • 2 Tbsp golden raisins

*To make clarified butter for this recipe, melt 4 tablespoons of sliced unsalted butter in a small saucepan on medium heat. Let the butter foam up, which releases its moisture. When the foaming subsides a bit, you may see solids in the melted butter beginning to brown, remove from heat and pour through a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel (to strain out the solids) into a bowl.

**Sometimes depending on how the rice was packed, it will need to be rinsed before cooking, especially rice that you buy in large bulk bags. If there is powdery stuff around the rice, you'll need to rinse it. If this is the case with your rice, rinse it until the rinsing water runs clear, and spread the rice out to dry on a large baking sheet. Make sure it is completely dry before frying.


1 Heat a large kettle of water (a little more than a quart) to boiling. Place saffron in a small bowl, cover with 2 Tbsp of the hot water, set aside.


2 Heat 2 tablespoons of ghee or clarified butter in a 2 quart, thick-bottomed saucepan on medium-high heat until hot. Add the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, cloves, and peppercorns to the pan. Gently fry the spices for 2 minutes.


3 Add rice, and fry for 3 more minutes, stirring after a minute or two. Some of the rice should brown at the bottom of the pan. Remove the pan from heat. Add four cups of the hot water you prepared in step one to the pan, taking care to add slowly as it may bubble up and splatter. Add two teaspoons of salt. Add the saffron threads and their soaking liquid. Add the orange zest. Stir, bring quickly to a boil, reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Cover tightly and cook for 20 minutes.

4 While the rice is cooking, in a small frying pan, heat on medium high heat and add the pistachios and slivered almonds. Toast until lightly browned, about 3 or 4 minutes, remove from pan into a bowl.


5 After 20 minutes, remove the lid from the rice, pick out the spices that have floated to the top of the rice - the cinnamon stick, any whole cardamom pods, black peppercorns or cloves. Scatter golden raisins over the top of the rice. Replace the lid and cook for 5 more minutes.

6 Stir in the toasted almonds and pistachios.


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How to make clarified butter - tips from David Lebovitz
Zafrani Kofta Pulao: Saffron and Caramelized Onion Pilaf with Meatballs from ecurry
Saffron rice with red bell pepper from Kalofagas
Red lentil dal - also by Kerissa

View Comments / Leave a Comment


  1. FigFondue

    That looks yummy! I’ve used turmeric instead of saffron in a similar recipe, and cooked the rice in coconut milk… very good! I’ll try this, as well. Here’s my rice recipe:

  2. mehrunnisa

    Elise, this kind of rice is called ‘zarda’ in my part of the world which is Pakistan. I am sure variations of it are made in the subcontinent as a whole. We usually eat it sweetened and it is commonly served as a dessert at wedding. The word zarda literally means a deep yellow the colour of an egg yolk.

  3. Katrina

    This sounds like such a delightful side! Love it!

  4. Camilla

    I thought I was the only person who thinks saffron tastes like soap! Can you still taste it here or is the flavor tempered by the other spices?

    You can definitely still taste it here, but it just works. Must be the combination with the butter and spices. ~Elise

  5. Fran

    I learned to make this rice when I lived in Bangalore and its become a standard when I dive into making an Indian meal. Kerissa’s story makes me wish I could be invited to her friend’s house too. Lovely piece. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Patricia

    Glad to have you back – I’ve missed your posts:)
    This recipe sounds delicious!! Will make this tonight to go with some grilled swordfish.

    Good to be back! Still a bit jet lagged though. I think this rice would be great with grilled swordfish. ~Elise

  7. Heather

    This looks absolutely delicious. I can’t wait to make it!

  8. Alana D

    Yummy, yummy!

  9. Soma

    I could eat this all day too! the heady aroma of the ghee and the spices together makes it so very special.

    Elise thanks much for the link. Much appreciated!

  10. Criss

    I make this with brown basmati rice and it is heavenly!

  11. Mike

    I don’t know–this looks like a home-cooked side dish that’s going to run about $9-10 per person. Is the saffron actually for its flavor? Or would tumeric suffice for color?

    Hmm. If you had none of these ingredients in your pantry to begin with, then yes, it might be expensive. I think when we made this the only ingredient we had to buy that we didn’t already have was some pistachios. Regarding saffron, it is for the flavor. You can make a turmeric rice if you want, we have an excellent recipe for it here. ~Elise

  12. Deb Allison

    I’ve always been curious how a recipe calling for cinnamon would be altered if it is omited? Being allergic to cinnamon I tend to pass over receipes that call for it. Is there a substitute?

    Sometimes you can use allspice as a substitute. I would add a couple allspice berries if you had them, if not, just skip it. ~Elise

  13. Jen

    This looks incredible! I’m wondering if how much ground cardamom to use, because that is what I already have. Thanks! I’ll definitely be making this

  14. Christine

    First, Elise you’re back just in time I have to go back to work after a week off and its easier when there are good distractions to pull me through. Now onto the food, this looks just like the rice dish that would come with each meal at an Indian restaurant I would go to before moving, I can’t wait to try it. Thanks for the the recipe

  15. Nicole @ GFShoestring

    I adore saffron. I can’t believe you think it tastes like soap. I didn’t even know that was possible! Ghee makes everything deep and flavorful, though. Looks great.


    It just goes to show you that everybody’s taste buds work differently. A lot of people have a similar problem with cilantro, which I adore. ~Elise

  16. darla magee

    this looks delicious! i am trying it this weekend.

  17. Linda In Washington

    I have saffron but didn’t have a reason to use it till I read your recipe. I trust you . I am lucky enough to shop at a grocery store that sell spices in bulk which is way cheaper than buying prepackage especially dried leaf spices.

  18. Espahan

    Oh my, this looks delicious. I can almost smell the spices. As for the saffron, I have never been able to distinguish a taste to it. Is it very subtle or what?

    It’s definitely not subtle, at least to my taste! ~Elise

  19. Mike

    Thanks for the turmeric rice reference; much the same as here, without the raisins and nuts.

  20. sonya

    Just made this today and it is sooooo good. I cut a couple of corners….
    1. used regular butter instead of clarified
    2. sushi rice instead of long grain
    3. thought i had cardamon pod, but didn’t so i subbed a star anise and put a pinch of powdered cardamon in the rice water.
    4. no nuts

    Nevertheless, it was absolutely fantastic, and a good way to use those exotic ingredients in my cabinet.

  21. Lisa H

    fiddly but delicious! Paired it with the Cardamom Honey Chicken recipe you posted in July of 06. Thank you

  22. Louise

    Would you recommend using black or green cardamom pods? I used black because it’s what I had on hand but was wondering if it would have had a more distinct taste with green cardamom. Either way it was delicious. Never enough uses for saffron in my book. Thanks for this one.

    I’ve only made it with green cardamom pods. ~Elise

  23. Cindy

    Hi Elise,

    What would the proportions of the spices be if one only has ground spices?


    Great question Cindy, I don’t know! If you experiment and find a set of measurements that work for you, please let us know about it. ~Elise

  24. Caitlin

    This is a great recipe! The stew is full of flavor. I used an organic Moroccan saffron I purchased from Amazon, which enhanced the flavor of the dish. If you are interested, you can check it out here
    Thanks! Keep these great recipes coming!

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