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Why Is Paella Yellow ? Here’s Why & How To Get That Color

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Delicious paella offers a rainbow of colors on your plate when cooked. The lobster and shrimp provide flashes of red and pink. The herbs and peas provide a splash of green. All of this is atop a beautiful yellow canvas of rice providing the backdrop. If you’re interested in making your own paella at home, you’ve probably wondered: Why is paella so yellow? How can I get this color at home ? Is it safe to be so yellow ? Let’s find out. 

paella yellow

Why is paella yellow?

Traditional paella gets its yellow color from saffron strands. Saffron imparts a beautiful golden-yellow hue and a slight earthy flavor to the dish, and it’s become an essential ingredient in paella. 

Nowadays you can get a yellow color in paella with food coloring as well, namely E102 food dye. This isn’t the case for every paella you see, rather for the cheaper pre-made versions you can get in a supermarket. Saffron is insanely expensive and would make it very difficult to turn a profit if it was used in every cheap pre-made paella. 

So which is in your paella dish right now ? Check the ingredients. If there is any actual saffron in it, it should be on the ingredient list. You may sometimes find both saffron and food dye used together to achieve a nearly neon yellow and the color is a dead giveaway. Saffron does give a yellow color, but it’s not opaque and you need quite a few strands to make the dish a strong yellow. 

Let’s take a look at each way of making your paella a nice yellow, how achievable the color actually is, and whether it needs to be a bright yellow or not. Oh, and we’re also taking a look at some affordable natural ingredients to use in place of saffron that are not actual food dye. 

Saffron gives a golden-yellow hue to the rice

Saffron is responsible for much of the color of the rice, but it is expensive. While saffron itself is red, when it is soaked in water, it infuses a golden amber color. Some of the color from the saffron then is absorbed by the rice. However, this alone is not enough to provide the vibrant yellow we associate with paella.

While a traditional part of paella, saffron provides more to the flavor than the color. Saffron offers a delicious, robust flavor that fits well with the other ingredients used.

Food dye brings a bright, flat yellow

Most often, the synthetic dye known as Tartrazine (E102) is used for providing the bright yellow color. However, some countries ban the use of tartrazine as it can cause intolerance symptoms or hyperactivity in children. If you see a paella that isn’t the vibrant yellow you expected, chances are, it skipped the food dye additive.

Read also: Why Is Meat Iridescent ? 

How to make paella yellow without dye

If you intend to make paella and don’t want to use yellow dye, you might be wondering if it is still possible to get that nice yellow color. This is absolutely possible, even without the use of saffron if you can’t source that either. By adding different ingredients, you can get a similar color and flavor profile.


Turmeric is one of the best replacements for saffron in paella thanks to the intense color and flavor it adds. The flavor is often described as more peppery and bold, especially when compared to saffron’s floral sweet notes. But, the color can create a nice yellow tint to the dish. Fresh turmeric, available in roots similar to ginger, can add even more color and flavor. To help balance out the flavor, it’s commonly used with paprika in paella.

turmeric powder

Saffron extract

Saffron extract is another alternative, coming from the dye of saffron. This is an all-natural solution to skipping the artificial colors that are typically used. Remember that the extract often doesn’t get the same intense yellow color as the artificial dye. It’s often included in packets of paella herbs. It’s still a bit expensive, but not as much as actual saffron strands.


Safflower is similar to saffron but comes from an entirely different plant. Safflower creates a mild, floral, herbal flavor and aroma, and is significantly cheaper than saffron. Safflower utilizes the brightly colored petals instead of the stigma to create a color that is almost identical to saffron.


Paprika is a bright red spice that comes from dried peppers. It can be bought in three varieties: Sweet, spicy, or smoked. The type of paprika chosen will change the flavor of the paella. Smoked paprika, sometimes found as pimentón ahumado, is used to mimic the flavor of smoked saffron threads. Or, it is possible to use a blend of sweet paprika (pimentón dulce) and smoked paprika, especially in tandem with turmeric.

When combining these three spices, the result is a tasty paella that also has a color very similar to using dyes. The reddish-orange colors of the paprika help to balance out the yellow of the turmeric to get much closer to the typical color used while still providing a valid taste substitute for saffron.

Premixed paella seasoning

For those who don’t want to go hunt down all of the herbs and spices that go into paella, there is the option to buy a premixed seasoning ready for use. The seasoning for paella includes several ingredients, including garlic, paprika, black pepper, rosemary, salt, and saffron extract to create a delicious paella without the measuring time. Usually, these seasoning packets come from Spain.

Why is my paella not yellow?

If you’ve made your own delicious paella but found that the color wasn’t quite right, there’s a chance that something that you added (or didn’t add) has changed it. Keep in mind that there are many recipes out there, and it could be the case that the recipe you chose called for ingredients that did not yield the typical golden color. Many recipes create a brown rice base instead.

You left out the food dye

The most obvious reason for a paella that isn’t quite so bright yellow is that the food dye was left out. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to leave this out if you don’t mind a browner paella. The dye serves to add color, not flavor, so other than visual elements, you aren’t missing much by leaving it out. If you want the yellow color, consider adding the food dye, or choosing a spice blend that will provide it.

The onions

If you used onion in your paella (and chefs are divided on whether it belongs in the dish or not), you may have changed the color of the rice. By deeply caramelizing the onions at the beginning of the cooking process, you imbue brown tones to the dish. Without adding enough dye, this can absolutely change the final product’s color.

The stock

Like the onions add to the color, the stock you choose to use to cook the rice may also impact the final color. Darker brown stocks often create a much deeper, earthier color, especially in the absence of food dyes. The stock you choose is likely dependent on which meats you choose to add to the paella. A nice, lightly colored fish stock won’t darken the rice as much as a deep, robust chicken or beef stock.

Overall, the ingredients that you choose to add to your dish will impact the color just as much as they impact the flavors. By carefully selecting your ingredients, you can have a delicious, nutritious, and bright yellow paella too.

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