Annatto seems so mysterious, yet it's widely used. This ingredient comes from the tropical achiote tree, and its bright yellowy-orange hue lends itself to use as a food dye. It also possesses medicinal purposes and is an ingredient in Latin American food, along with Caribbean and Filipino cuisines. It's often used in soups, stews, sauces, and marinades where it lends a sweet, peppery taste.
Most Common Use: food dye and seasoning
Forms: powder, oil, paste
Origin: Latin American cuisine
What Is Annatto?
Annatto is the seed or extract of the achiote tree, which is indigenous to Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The seeds and pulp have been used for hundreds of years for a variety of purposes and are used heavily in Latin America as a dye, medicine, and an ingredient in many foods. It has a naturally intense hue that can range in color from yellow to dark orange when used as a dye, although the seeds are a deep, bright orange-red.
The fruit of the achiote tree is shaped like a heart and covered with thick, spiky hairs. As the fruit matures, the pod can be opened easily by hand to reveal its red seeds. The seeds can be ground into a powder, turned into a paste, or infused into oil. Commercially, the seeds and flesh are processed to extract the potent edible dye.
It is believed that annatto made the transition from use as a dye to use in the kitchen when Europeans who arrived in the Americas couldn't find saffron to tint their food and instead used annatto. This practice gave it the nickname "the poor man's saffron."
Annatto is responsible for the yellow color of butter, margarine, and cheese, all of which would be a pale creamy color without the addition of this natural dye. Cheddar cheese acquired its classic orange color from annatto during the 1800s when it was thought that high-quality cheeses gained their color from the presence of beta-carotene from higher quality green grass fed to cattle. Ironically, many people now assume the bright yellow color comes from unnatural ingredients.
Annatto is used as a colorant in many other commercial products such as processed meats, smoked fish, beverages, and a variety of packaged food. Many cosmetics utilize annatto for its strong hue, giving it the nickname "the lipstick tree."
How to Cook With Annatto
Many dishes in Central and South America, such as arroz con pollo, use annatto for the distinct yellow color. Annatto is also used to color soups, stews, and spice rubs. It's an ingredient in Goya's Sazón seasoning (it will say con culantro y achiote), giving rice its color in Caribbean-style black beans and yellow rice, and is added to many tandoori cooking recipes, too.
Annatto seeds are usually steeped in oil or ground to a powder prior to adding to recipes, rather than adding the seeds whole. Annatto is a key flavor component in many Latin American dishes. The paste is easy to use; just take a small bit of it and mix it with water. The powder can be sprinkled right onto whatever you are cooking as you would with any other dried ground spice or herb. If you have access to dried seeds, those can be soaked in hot water until they give off their color, or you can fry them in a neutral oil such as canola and strain it off prior to use in dishes.
What Does It Taste Like?
Annatto’s flavor can be described as earthy, musky, and slightly peppery. Some may detect a sweet, floral hint of nutmeg.
Most culinary uses of this ingredient start at the beginning of the process of cooking, implementing achiote for its color and flavor, and using it as a paste, a rub, a marinade, or an oil.
Where to Buy Annatto
Because annatto is not a common ingredient in American cuisine, it may be difficult to locate seeds in supermarkets. Spice vendors or global markets, especially those specializing in Latin, Mexican, or Caribbean ingredients, are likely places to find it. Annatto can be purchased as dried whole seeds, powder, flavored oils, or compressed paste.
Oil made from achiote seeds will keep at room temperature in a jar with a tightly sealed lid for up to 5 days, or up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
Achiote paste will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three months and the powder will keep for up to three years in a cool, dark, and dry location.
Nutrition and Benefits
Achiote has been used traditionally for a number of uses, including blood sugar moderation, and to relieve diarrhea, fluid retention, heartburn, and fever. It is considered an antioxidant and has been used to treat burns. It also works as a bug repellent. Annatto also makes appearances in supplements designed for cardiovascular benefits because it is rich in certain antioxidants such as tocotrienols, which are in the vitamin E family.