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Warm and Earthy Spices - Achiote - Bixa orellana

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Achiote - Bixa orellana

Achiote is the orange-red seed of the small evergreen annatto tree, native to tropical South America. In pre-Columbian times the seeds were already widely used as a colorant for food, fabrics, and body paint; in the Western world they are still used as such in butter, cheese, smoked fish, and in cosmetics. Brazil and the Philippines are the main producers, but the tree grows throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and in parts of Asia. Also sometimes called annatto seed, achiote is its name in the Nahuatl language of Mexico.

Culinary uses

Achiote seeds can be soaked in hot water to obtain a colored liquid for stocks and stews, or to color rice. In the Caribbean, the seeds are fried in fat, over low heat, then discarded before the now deep-golden or orange fat is used for cooking. The fat, or oil treated the same way, can be stored in a sealed glass jar in the refrigerator for several months.

In Jamaica, achiote may be used with onion and chili peppers in the sauce for saltfish and ackee, often called the national dish. In the Philippines, achiote is ground and added to soups and stews, mostly for color effect; it is an essential ingredient in the famous pork-and-chicken dish, pipián. In Peru, it is used in marinades, especially for pork. In Venezuela, it is combined with garlic, paprika, and herbs to make a popular condiment called aliño criollo. In Mexico, it goes into achiote paste – the Yucatán recado rojo – basis of the region’s best-known dish, pollo pibil (marinated chicken wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven); the paste is equally good spread on fish or pork before grilling. In Mexico, achiote is also sometimes added to the dough for tamales, the stuffed cornmeal-paste rolls steamed in a corn-husk wrapping. In Vietnam, cooks use oil dyed with achiote as the base of braised dishes to give them color.

Essential to pipián, recado rojo.

Good with beef, egg dishes, fish (especially salt cod), legumes, okra, onions, pork, poultry, rice, squash, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, most vegetables.

Combines well with allspice, chili, citrus juice, cloves, cumin, epazote, garlic, oregano, paprika, peanuts.

Tasting notes

The seeds have a faint flowery or peppermint scent, and a delicate, earthy, slightly peppery taste with a hint of bitterness. They impart an agreeably earthy taste to food if used in quantities much larger than those required for coloring only.

Parts used

Dried seeds.

Buying and storing

Achiote seeds are available, whole or ground, from Latin American, Spanish and East Indian markets. Seeds should be a healthy rust-red; avoid any that are dull and brownish. Powdered achiote is often mixed with cornstarch, sometimes with other spices such as cumin. Seeds and powder should be kept in an airtight jar out of the light. Seeds will keep for at least 3 years.


The large, rose-like flowers develop into prickly, orange-red pods at the end of the branches; each contains about 50 brick-red, angular seeds. When ripe the pods are harvested, split open, and macerated in water. The pulp embedding the seeds is pressed into cakes for processing into dyes; the seeds are dried as a spice.

Whole dried seeds

Whole seeds are mostly used as a colorant. Soak 1/2 tsp in 1 tbsp boiling water for 1 hour, or until the water is a deep orange color.

Ground Seeds

Dried achiote seeds are very hard and are most easily ground in an electric spice mill.

Recado rojo

Red achiote paste is indispensable to the cooking of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. Achiote seeds are combined with black peppercorns, cloves, cumin and coriander seeds, dried oregano, garlic, and bitter orange juice or wine vinegar. Small hot red chili peppers may be added .

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