Achiote is the Mexican name for annato seeds that come from a specific tree grown in the Caribbean and South American tropics, used for their vibrant red color and flavor for cooking. Learn more about it.
Latin American dishes are known for their incredible flavors and bright colors. It wouldn't be wrong to say that a lot of the cuisine from the region is nothing short of a celebration of colors, textures, and flavors. It is a concoction of unique ingredients that are native to the region and give this type of cuisine a very specific flavor profile.
One of the very unique ingredients featured frequently in Mexican cuisine is Achiote.
But what is Achiote? Let’s explore.
What is Achiote?
Achiote is the Mexican name for annato seeds, which are seeds that come from a tree that is commonly grown in the tropics of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. For centuries, they have been used for coloring purposes. These seeds impart a bright red to yellow color to items such as body paint, cloth, as well as food.
Are Achiote and Annatto Seeds the Same?
The terms "Achiote" and "Annatto" are used interchangeably. They both refer to Bixa orellana which is a shrub native to South America and Mexico that famously produces this classic red orange condiment.
What is Achiote Paste?
Achiote is a paste that is made using the seeds of the Bixa orellana tree. While the seeds are used in Mexican cuisine as well, the paste like condiment is the more known form of the edible across the globe.
Achiote paste incorporates the annatto seeds along with a combination of aromatic herbs and earthy spices such as cumin, coriander, oregano, cloves, cumin, and some delicious garlic. This results in a chunky and delicious paste that can be used for a variety of purposes.
The sauce has a bright orange red color that looks extremely appealing.
What Does Achiote Taste Like?
Achiote paste has a fairly mild flavor. It is earthy and nutty thanks to the array of spices and herbs that are incorporated in it. The heat level of Achiote paste can go up to 40K SV on the Scoville Scale. It also has peppery and sweet undertones.
How to Use Achiote?
Achiote is traditionally used in many Mexican dishes like Pollo Asado (Roast Chicken), though you'll also find it in traditional dishes in Latin America, Puerto Rico and Caribbean cuisine. This includes the likes of cochinita pibil, chorizo, tacos al pastor, tamales, and longanizas, among several others.
In Puerto Rican cuisine, you'll find it dishes like carne guisada, pernil (roast pork), Puerto Rican arroz con pollo and arroz con gandules, among others.
It can be used as a spice, as a food colorant, or even as a condiment. When cooking, you can incorporate it into soups, stews, curries, and dishes that feature beans. Another mouth watering application is to use ground achiote as a dry rub for meat.
The earthy flavor pairs very well with beef that is set to roast, barbecue, or grill. You can also fix the paste with some oil or lard and brush it onto your seafood to impart some beautiful color and nutty taste.
How to Buy Achiote Paste?
In Mexico or Hispanic grocery stores, you will be able to find Achiote paste available in blocks. Look for it in your local grocery store in the specialty Mexican aisle. The block is made of concentrated Achiote and you can dilute it down with water or broth as you are cooking with it.
The package should come with instructions on how to use the paste.
- Buy Achiote Paste from Amazon (affiliate link, my friends!)
How to Make Achiote Paste?
If you cannot find pre made authentic Achiote paste (recado rojo) in your area, here is how you can make some at your home. The recipe is quite simple and straightforward and you will most likely find the rest of the ingredients in your cabinets once you acquire the Annatto seeds.
- Grind together 1/4 cup of Annatto seeds, 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, 1 clove, 1 teaspoon peppercorns and salt to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon or more). You should ideally use a mortar and pestle for this purpose so you get all the delicious seasoning and flavor incorporated into your paste. It's easy to double with 1/2 cup.
- Add 6 cloves garlic, a spicy chili pepper for a touch of heat if desired, and half a cup of bitter orange juice.
- Grind the mixture in the mortar or place the entire mixture into a blender and process it until it appears incorporated and relatively smooth. It will still retain some small chunks but those only add to the tasting experience.
- Serve your delicious Achiote paste or save it for later in an airtight container. Refrigerate to extend its life and keep it fresh.
Check out my recipe for how to make homemade achiote paste. It's very easy and great for many recipes.
NOTE: This post was updated on 3/28/22 to include new information and photos. It was originally published on 3/2/21.
I bought paste and it dud not have instructions. I tried melting it in hot water and it stayed chunky and wound not dilute. How do you use it?
Mike Hultquist says
Laurinda, the paste can be mixed with oil and other spices to make a nice thick rub or marinade for meats. See my recipe for Cochinita Pibil (https://www.chilipeppermadness.com/recipes/cochinita-pibil/) for how I use it there.