Our jeweled toned Saffron Rice recipe is elegant and impressive with brightly colored herbs, pistachios, and pomegranate arils. Easy to make, this Persian-inspired rice pilaf recipe is perfect for your next gathering or a weeknight meal.
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I originally made this recipe for a party. I chose a variety of dishes reminiscent of different Middle Eastern cultures. This saffron rice was the star of the show.
I shared the recipe with several of our guests and the feedback was wonderful. This recipe is so easy to make it is perfect as a weeknight side dish. But it also is so beautiful on the table that it is a perfect addition to a holiday table.
I was surprised that this saffron rice turned out to be the perfect dish to make for a crowd. The best part is you can reheat it and get that classic Persian rice crust or make it the day of and serve it as a saffron rice pilaf. Let’s start off with the key ingredient- saffron!
What is Saffron?
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the "saffron crocus". The vivid crimson stigmas and styles, called threads, are collected and dried to be used mainly as a seasoning and coloring agent in food. (Source)
Each crocus flower only produces three saffron threads, Saffron must be hand-harvested making it the world’s most expensive spice.
The good news is that you just need a pinch of saffron to make saffron rice. You can purchase saffron at most grocery stores. You can also buy it online. While saffron is expensive it is best to buy in small quantities. You want it to be fresh, this is a spice investment.
Saffron Rice Ingredients & Substitutions
Saffron rice is present in many cultures and regions around the world. Each with its own variation. This recipe is more Middle Eastern or Persian style and that is reflected in the ingredients.
White Basmati Rice- The recipe works best with long grain rice because the starch content is lower. You can use short grain but it will be more difficult to get the perfect texture. Using brown rice will result in a gummy texture and you won't achieve that gorgeous yellow rice that make this dish special. To get the show-stopping yellow, you need white rice. Jasmine rice makes a good substitute if basmati isn't on hand.
Stock or Broth- The recipe calls for chicken stock. Mainly because that is what I usually have on hand. You can absolutely use vegetable stock to make the recipe vegan. My only caution is to not use stock that contains mushrooms. While vegetable stocks with mushrooms are great in stews and soups the earthy flavor overpowers the delicate saffron.
Saffron- As we have already discussed, this is an investment. If you can’t find saffron or don’t want to invest the money in this spice you can substitute ground turmeric powder. It isn’t quite the same, but the taste is similar, and you will achieve the same beautiful golden yellow color that saffron lends. Go light if using turmeric. It is a very pungent spice, a little goes a long way. Start with 1 teaspoon and work up from there.
Onion- Stick with the basic white or yellow onion or shallot. You don't want a sweet onion to overpower the dish. And err on the side of less is more.
Herbs- We used parsley in this dish for its easy flavor and bright color. You can play around with herbs, I found a recipe by a UK chef Yotam Ottolenghi that uses a mix of dill, chervil, and tarragon that I thought might be a nice variation to try.
Pomegranate Arils- Pomegranate adds a bit of acid and sweetness to the dish. However, they are seasonal so dried fruits might be better to try. You can try dried cranberries, raisins or cherries, just be sure they have no added sugar. If using dried berries add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice before stirring in the toppings. Fresh options include red currants or serviceberries.
Pistachios- Pistachios add another layer of color and crunch to this gluten-free rice dish. I prefer to buy pre-shelled- honestly, I am a little lazy. If you don't have pistachios on hand you can substitute pine nuts or slivered almonds. Just be sure to toast them first! Avoiding nuts? Try unsalted pepitas or sunflower seeds.
How to Make Saffron Rice
While making saffron rice is similar to any basic rice dish there are a few details that make it special.
Step 1- Prep the Rice
To start, soak the basmati rice in water for 30 minutes. Drain the rice and rinse until the water runs clear. Spread the rice out on a towel or sheet pan to allow it to dry out while preparing the other ingredients. This step removes the outer layer of starch and will prevent the rice grains from sticking together.
Step 2- Soak the Saffron
In a medium saucepan, heat the stock on medium-low heat until warm. Crush 2 pinches of saffron between your fingers and add to the pan and allow to soak for a minimum of 10 minutes. The longer you soak your saffron the more intense the flavor. Fancier saffron rice recipes will have you turn the saffron threads into a powder using a mortar and pestle. I find that I can crush the threads enough without dirtying another dish!
Pro Tip: soaking the rice and heating the cooking liquid will decrease the overall cooking time for the rice.
Step 3- Saute
In a large pan with a well-fitting lid, melt oil over medium heat. Add the finely diced onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Next add the rice stirring constantly until rice is slightly toasted, about 3 minutes.
Step 4- Simmer
Pour the stock with saffron over the rice mixture. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook rice for 15 minutes then shut off the heat and allow the rice to sit for 5 minutes undisturbed.
Taste the rice for salt, and adjust as needed. If you prefer richer-tasting rice you can stir in 2 tablespoons of butter or vegan butter at this point.
If serving immediately fluff the rice, it should have a pilaf-like texture. Stir in parsley, pistachios, and pomegranate arils. Transfer to a serving bowl.
If you are making the rice in advance reduce the cooking time to 13 minutes. Transfer to a baking dish and cover with foil. Store in the refrigerator for up to two days. To reheat, bake covered at 300 degrees for 20 minutes, or until heated through. Stir in parsley, pistachios, and pomegranate arils right before serving.
Reduce the cooking time to 10 minutes. Add ghee or vegan butter to a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the rice and cover it with a lid. Reduce heat to medium-low, cook for 15 minutes. Turn the pan 50 degrees (for even cooking) and reduce heat to low. Cook an additional 10-15 minutes.
The Tahdig is done when the sides begin to form a golden crust. Remove the lid and place a large serving platter over the pan. Flip the rice onto the plate so the golden crust is up. Sprinkle with the pomegranate arils, pistachios, and herbs. To serve cut like a pie.
Sorry, I don't have a picture of this version on hand!
More Favorite Side Dish Recipes
If you enjoyed this recipe be sure to check out some of the other rice and vegetable dishes on our site. Reader favorites include:
- Wild Mushrooms with Chestnuts
- Honey Roasted Rutabagas
- Garlic Green Beans
- Sun-Dired Tomato RIsotto
- Balsamic Baked Mushrooms
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- 2 cups white basmati rice
- 3 ½ cups chicken stock sub vegetable stock for vegan
- ¼-1/2 teaspoon saffron threads roughly 2 pinches
- 1 tablespoon ghee or EVOO for vegan
- 1 small white onion, finely diced
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ⅓ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- ½ cup shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
- ½ cup pomegranate arils
- Soak the rice in water for 30 minutes. Drain and rinse until the water runs clear. Set aside.2 cups white basmati rice
- In a medium saucepan, heat the stock on medium-low heat until warm. Add 2 pinches of saffron to the pan and allow to soak for 10 minutes.¼-1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
- In a large pan with a well fitting lid, melt ghee over medium heat. Add onion and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add rice stirring constantly until rice is slightly toasted, about 3 minutes.1 tablespoon ghee, 1 small white onion, finely diced
- Add stock with saffron and salt to rice mixture. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook rice for 15 minutes then shut off heat and allow the rice to sit for 5 minutes undisturbed.½ teaspoon kosher salt, 3 ½ cups chicken stock
- Taste the rice for salt, adjust as needed. Stir in parsley, pistachios, and pomegranate arils.⅓ cup fresh parsley, chopped, ½ cup shelled pistachios, roughly chopped, ½ cup pomegranate arils
- Store leftover rice in the fridge for up to 5 days in an airtight container.