What Is Achiote/Annatto?
Achiote and annatto are used interchangeably and are the most common names for a product extracted from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana shrub/tree. After macerating in water, the pulp surrounding the seeds is made into cakes for further processing into dyes, while the seeds are dried and used whole or ground as a culinary spice.
The product goes by many names. “Annatto, called urucul by the Tupi-Guarani Indians of the Amazon region, achiote in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs in Mexico, annatto by the Caribs, and achuete by Filipinos, is better known today as achiote by Mexicans and Caribbeans.” (Raghavan, 2006) It’s known as roucou in Trinidad and Tobago, Martinique, and Guadalupe.
Achiote is native to the tropical areas of the Americas including the Caribbean and Mexico. The Spanish brought Bixa orellana from the Americas to Southeast Asia in the 1600s where it is now a common food ingredient. It’s also produced in India and West Africa in this day and age.
Traditional Uses for Achiote/Annatto:
Annatto was and still is, used as a culinary spice, food colorant, commercial dye, and for medicinal purposes. Caribbean natives were adding achiote to their dishes for flavor and color long before Europeans arrived. However, they also used it as cosmetics, fabric dye, body paint, sunscreen, insect repellent, and as medicine. Some historians theorize that the term "red-skins" comes from the use of achiote as body paint because it is a natural dye and turns the skin a reddish color. (Wolfe, 1985) Also, the “Aztecs used annatto seeds to intensify the color of their chocolate drink.” (Raghavan, 2006)
Commercially, annatto is used to add yellow color to chorizo, butter and margarine, cheese, and smoked fish. On the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands, it’s used to make yellow rice and sometimes added to sofrito. In the French Caribbean, it’s used to make blaff recipes. (Houston, 2005).
Achiote powder mixed with other spices and herbs can be turned into a paste to marinate and give a smoky flavor to meats, fish, and poultry. A popular product made with ground achiote is sázon, available in small foil packets ready to use in your recipe. Most sázon brands contain MSG, but Badia does not.
Achiote seeds are steeped in cooking oil (achiote oil) or lard (achiotina), infusing them with color and flavor. Sautéing in or cooking with the oil or lard colors the rice, paella, meats, soups, stews, fish, and sometimes yuca dishes.
Taste and Aroma:
When used in small amounts primarily as a food colorant, annatto has no discernable flavor. However, when used in larger amounts to add flavor, it imparts an earthy, peppery flavor with a hint of bitterness. Achiote seeds give off a slightly floral or peppermint scent.
Buying and Storing:
Annatto is sold several ways: as seeds, ground, as a paste, or infused in cooking oil or lard. Look for it the spice isle or ethnic food aisle of your grocer. Packing includes bottles, bags, or vacuum-sealed bricks.
Ground or powdered achiote is often mixed with other herbs, spices, and even cornstarch. Read the label if you have food allergies.
Buy brightly colored red-orange seeds.
Do not buy dull or brown seeds as they are past their prime. They are too old and have lost their flavor.
Both seeds and ground annatto will keep a long time, up to 3 years, under proper storage. Keep in an airtight glass container and store in a dark cabinet away from light. Achiote oil or achiotina will keep a few months stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator.
Bladholm, Linda. Latin & Caribbean Grocery Stores Demystified. P. 67. St. Martin's Press, 2001.
Houston, Lynn Marie. Food Culture in the Caribbean. pp 34 – 35. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.
Norman, Jill. Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference. Pp. 214 – 215. DK Publishing Inc., 2002.
Raghavan, Susheela. Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings, Second Edition. pp 68 – 69. CRC Press, 2006.
Wolfe, Linda. The Cooking of the Caribbean Islands. P. 38. Macmillan, 1985.