Annatto—also known as achiote, atsuete, bija, or urucum—is a spice that plays two roles: It lends a vibrant red-orange hue to foods and also provides a sweet and mildly peppery flavor. It’s incredibly common in Central and South American, Caribbean, and Filipino cuisine, while much lesser known elsewhere.
Curious? So are we. Here’s everything you need to know about this unique spice.
Origin: Made from the seeds of the achiote tree
Varieties: Can be found as a powder, infused into oil, or turned into a paste
Flavor notes: Peppery, sweet
Commonly found in: Central and South American, Caribbean, and Filipino cuisines
Special uses: As a food coloring agent
What is Annatto?
Annatto is a spice and food coloring agent made from the seeds of the achiote tree, which is a tree that is native to South American, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
The seeds are found inside the fruit of the achiote tree and can be ground into a powder, infused into oil, or turned into a paste. It has been used in these parts of the world for centuries as a food coloring agent in traditional dishes because of the naturally vivid red-orange color it lends.
Annatto is also used as a coloring agent in foods such as cheeses and packaged snacks from around the world. Mimolette, an orange-colored semi-hard cow’s milk cheese from France, gets its color from annatto, as does yellow cheddar. Some mustards, margarines, and snacks like Goldfish and Cheeze-It crackers also contain annatto.
It isn’t just for color, though. Annatto comes with its own special flavor, which is why it’s also used as a spice. Take a whiff of annatto and you’ll be greeted by a nutty, floral aroma. The flavor of annatto is best described as mildly sweet and spicy, with some earthy, musky notes.
Where to Buy Annatto
While you may find annatto—in ground, paste, or oil form—at some standard grocery stores, the best place to source annatto is at grocery stores that specialize in Central American, South American, Mexican, Caribbean, or Filipino ingredients. You may also find it at well-stocked spice shops.
Alternatively, it is readily available online.
How to Store Annatto
Ground annatto should be stored just like your other dry spices: In a cool, dark place such as a pantry or spice cabinet. If properly stored, it will stay fresh for up to three years.
Both the paste and oil are better stored in sealed containers in the refrigerator once opened. There, the paste will keep for up to three months and the oil will keep for up to two weeks.
How to Cook with Annatto
How to cook with annatto depends on what form of the spice you’re starting with.
- Ground annatto: Use it like any other dry ground spice. It can be sprinkled on meats, stirred into rice dishes, as well as added to soups, stews, and sauces.
- Annatto paste: Thin with a little water and then add directly to your dishes.
- Annatto oil: The oil can be used as a cooking oil for meats, vegetables, and rice dishes, as well as in marinades.
Annatto is used in a number of traditional Latin American and Filipino dishes to provide color and flavor. It’s often used in marinades, dry rubs, to give classic yellow rice its golden hue, and even to lend color to savory pastry crust.
You’ll sometimes see recipes call for sazón, which is a dry seasoning that includes annatto in the box along with a handful of other spices, as well as spice. It’s a popular option because of its convenience. You can also buy sazón without annatto, which simply means it won’t lend annatto’s pretty color to your dish.
Here are a few recipes that use annatto if you want to try out its unique flavor!
- Cochinita Pibil
- Asopao de Camarones y Gandules (Puerto Rican Rice Stew With Shrimp and Pigeon Peas)
- Puerto Rican Salmorejo (Stewed Crab and Tomatoes With Rice)
Given that annatto is so unique, there isn’t an exact substitute for the spice. However, if you’re unable to find it, combining equal parts sweet paprika and turmeric as a one-to-one alternative for ground annatto is your best alternative.
Turmeric will lend a yellow-orange hue to your dish, along with a nutty, earthy flavor, which paprika provides a red color and spicy sweetness.