Saffron Rice Pilaf

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.

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


  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter (see Recipe Note)
  • 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 from one orange (about 1 1/2 teaspoons, packed)
  • 2 tablespoons pistachios
  • 2 tablespoons blanched slivered or sliced almonds
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins


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

Saffron soaking in hot water

2 Fry the spices: 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.

saffron rice spices being fried in pot

3 Brown the rice: 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.

brown rice mixed with saffron rice spices

4 Add water and seasonings, and cook: 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.

saffron rice being cooked in a salt, saffron, zesty water mixture

4 Toast pistachios and almonds: 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 Remove spices, add raisins: 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.

saffron rice topped with raisins and nuts Saffron rice being mixed together in cooking pot

6 Stir in the toasted almonds and pistachios and serve.

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  • Linda

    Can ground cardamom be substituted for the whole? Thanks! Linda

    • Elise Bauer

      Hi Linda, not exactly. The cardamom pods infuse the oil that you use to brown the rice. If you don’t have cardamom pods, then you might want to add a pinch of ground cardamom to the rice when you add the water and salt.

  • Saurabh

    Excellent recipe – worthy of a bookmark!
    Typical of pulaos – very flavourful but easy on the palate for those not used to spices. For those not afraid of a little more flavour, I would definitely recommend adding 1.5x-2x times all the spices except perhaps black peppercorns. I went to town with the ghee and the results are as expected – the fullness of the morsel in the mouth.
    I now make this regularly every few months!

    Also, Elise, the “white powder” on uncooked rice grains is mostly the starch from the milling process. It could potentially be other substances depending on where the rice comes from but none of them are unsafe. The general rule is that you rinse it clear (like you said) if you are making any non-sticky rice dish e.g. a pulao and do not rinse if you are making a sticky rice dish e.g. risotto or actual sticky rice.


  • ShakeAndBake

    Very good and less fussy than I was expecting. I thought the spice level overall was very subtle and I will probably increase by 50% next time.

  • Keerthan

    I need to one observation here. The name of this is not “Saffron rice Pilaf”. It’s “Saffron rice Pulav”

  • pam

    thanks for sharing. this so yumm
    (although i used a lot more nuts & raisins)

  • 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!

  • 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

  • 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

  • Lisa H

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


  • 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.


  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • Criss

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

  • 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!

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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: