What Is Achiote (Annatto) and How to Make Achiote Paste

Achiote seeds and paste
Left: Annato seeds inside their pod. Right: Commercially packaged achiote paste. Photos: Left (c) Rinadlod Wurglitsch on Flickr, Creative Commons license cc by 2.0; Right (c) Robin Grose
    15 mins

Annatto seeds, known in Mexico as achiote, come from a tree thought to have originated in tropical South America. They have been used for centuries by people in Central and South America and the Caribbean to give a yellowish or bright red color to human skin (as in body paint), cloth, and edibles.

While achiote is important in the regional cuisines of southeast Mexico (mainly in the states of Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca and Veracruz), the mild-flavored condiment is known throughout the country due to the widespread distribution of commercially prepared achiote paste.

Many delicious traditional dishes and ingredients contain achiote including cochinita pibil, chorizos and longanizas, tacos al pastor, and many others.

Blocks of achiote paste can be found at Hispanic grocery stores or in the international aisle of large supermarkets in the United States. These need to be diluted with water or broth in order to be used for cooking. Follow the instructions on the package or in the recipe you are using.

If you’d prefer to make your own achiote past, it´s not at all difficult. Follow the instructions below to make a delicious and beautiful ingredient to use in any number of Mexican recipes.


What You'll Need

  • 1/4 cup annatto seeds 
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 cloves peeled garlic
  • 1/2 cup bitter orange juice OR 1/4 cup regular orange juice plus 1/4 cup Mexican lime juice OR 1/3 cup white vinegar

How to Make It


    Grind the annatto, coriander seeds, oregano, cumin seeds, peppercorns, and cloves in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle. (You also can use a coffee grinder to do this, but as it will leave the seasoning flavor behind, make sure you do not plan to use the grinder for coffee again.)


  2. Place the ground spices and the salt, the garlic, and the bitter orange juice in a blender and process until it is smooth.

  1. Store your achiote paste in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Use as instructed in your recipe.

To use as a general meat marinade: Rub the mixture onto chicken, pork or fish and let it marinate for 4 to 6 hours. Cook or grill as usual.

Did You Know?

  • The word achiote comes from the Nahuatl word axiotl, meaning "red tincture" or "red dye."
  • Achiote seeds were sacred to the ancient Maya, who used them much more for ritual purposes than as a foodstuff. Their red color suggested blood. Mayas combined achiote with cacao and other seeds to make a ritual drink for ceremonial purposes.
  • In the 16th Century, annatto was used as a dye in the painting of Mexican manuscripts (codices).
  • In addition to Latin American and Caribbean cuisines, annatto seeds are used in Jamaican and Filipino cooking and as a coloring agent for cheeses and other foods in Europe and the United States.
  • In addition to achiote paste, you can make achiote oil for cooking as well.

Edited by Robin Grose