If you’ve savored the bright color and spicy flavor of mole sauce, tamales, and cochinita pibil, or a seriously good slab of grilled pork, you’ve tasted achiote. It's one of the most versatile and beautiful spice blends/condiments in Mexico.
Achiote, also called annatto in Caribbean cultures, is a spice and food coloring extracted from the seeds of the achiote tree, an evergreen shrub native to tropical areas of the Americas. The prickly looking seed pods are harvested, the seeds are dried and then ground into a bright orange powder. The seeds of the achiote tree produce annatto, a deep orange-red food coloring that is actually the source of 70% of all food colorings.
How to Use Achiote
Ground achiote itself isn’t particularly powerful—it doesn’t pack much punch on its own, with just a subtle, earthy, and slightly bitter flavor in small doses. It’s more often used as achiote paste, or recado rojo, which combines the orange powdered spice with cumin, peppercorn, allspice, vinegar, cloves, bitter orange juice, garlic, and vinegar (or even tequila).
Without the liquid, the smoky dried spice blend can be used as a rub for grilling, or the paste can be used with the liquid as a marinade (for recipes like camarones el pastor).
Random History Facts
Historically, achiote, also called “the Mayan condiment,” was used as sunscreen, decorative body paint, and insect repellent. The Aztecs used it to deepen the color of their chocolate drink.
Health Benefits of Achiote
The color comes from the pigments in the outer covering of the seeds, which contain carotenoids—the same substances that give carrots their orange color. These carotenoids, along with other antioxidants such as flavonoids and terpenoids, can neutralize free radicals, which are potentially harmful molecules that damage cells in the body. High levels of free radicals are linked to chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
You can find achiote paste with Latin American foods at most grocery stores, or you can make your own achiote paste with a recipe like this.
- 1/2 cup annatto seeds (or 3 tablespoons annatto powder)
- 10 cloves garlic
- 1 cup bitter (Seville) orange juice
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 6 allspice berries
- 3 cloves
Crush annatto seeds in a mortar, or use annatto powder. Toast garlic on a griddle until charred, then peel. Process the garlic and bitter (Seville) orange juice (or 1/2 cup each orange juice and lime juice) to a fine paste. Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind coriander seed, kosher salt, cumin seed, black peppercorns, allspice berries, and cloves. Stir the annatto and the spices into the garlic paste. Transfer to a glass jar and store refrigerated up to 2 months.