Achiote: Add Color to Your Plate With This Spice
Story at-a-glance –
- Achiote (Bixa orellana), or annatto, is a spice that is used by a large portion of the world’s population
- Achiote is a well-known spice in Latin American cuisine because of its distinct color. Learn more about it and the various health benefits it offers
Achiote (Bixa orellana), or annatto, is a spice that is used by a large portion of the world’s population. It’s easy to decipher whether a dish contains achiote through the distinct red-orange color that it gives off. While the main use for achiote is for dyeing and coloring, it also adds a subtle flavor to any dish. In small amounts, achiote does not exude a very strong flavor, but if used copiously, people have noted that it has a subtle peppery taste with a nutty and sweet aroma.1
This spice is largely used in Latin American and Asian cuisine. It’s widely known in South America in particular, where it is believed to have originated.2 Achiote was also introduced to other countries by trade, which explains its widespread use in various regions. Accounts say that marketeers from Mexico first traded achiote seeds and followed the trade routes of other spices, which then led to its introduction to Europe, Africa and Asia.
Nowadays, it is still utilized by the Tsachila in Ecuador as a hair dye and by the Zo’e tribe of Brazil as body paint.3 While people usually value it for its color, achiote has also been used for its medicinal properties, and is now being studied for its antioxidative and anticancer effects.4
Consuming achiote offers various health benefits, as it contains vitamins, minerals and other nutrients such as:
- Carotenoids — The achiote plant contains the carotenoid bixin, which is solely found in this plant. Bixin has been observed to seek out reactive oxygen species (ROS) and minimize the risk of diabetic complications that may be caused by oxidative stress. This component also has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help in speeding up wound healing.5
- Antimicrobial compounds — The methanolic extract taken from achiote leaves has been the subject of numerous studies, with the results showing its antibacterial and antifungal properties. It has also been used in folkloric medicine to help ease gonorrhea and skin conditions.6
- Calcium — Achiote contains a considerable amount of calcium, which is essential for maintaining bone health and preventing bone deterioration brought on by aging.
- Folate — It offers high amounts of folate, which is necessary for a healthy pregnancy. Pregnant women are advised to eat food that is rich in folate to aid in the development of the fetus and to avoid the risk of birth defects.7
The seeds of this plant are usually processed and sold as either achiote paste or achiote powder. While the most utilized part of the plant is the achiote seeds, the leaves, roots and bark can also be used medicinally. Here are some other ways to use the achiote plant:8
- To alleviate fever — You can boil the leaves and apply them to your head and body.
- To accelerate wound healing — a concoction of the achiote leaves may be used in washing wounds. Bixin is also extracted from the achiote plant for its anti-inflammatory properties.9
- To ease sore throat — you can boil young leaves and use it as a gargle. Make sure that the concoction cools to avoid accidentally scalding your mouth.
- To soothe burns — the seeds can be ground, boiled and applied to burns.
It has also been used as a laxative, cardiotonic, expectorant and antibiotic. Indigenous people have also used achiote seeds topically to shield themselves from the effects of too much ultraviolet exposure.10
Achiote can be planted directly in the ground in warm-weather locations, but it should be planted in a large container in other regions. Achiote thrives in tropical environments and is usually planted in warmer regions. Because of the varying temperatures and location, achiote plants have different flowering and maturing time.11 Here is a step-by-step guide on how you can grow your own achiote plant:12
- Plant the seeds in well-drained, sandy compost. They can be planted at any time of the year.
- Cover the seeds with a thin layer of sand or grit. Keep the sand moist. The temperature should be kept at around 60 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Wait for the seeds to germinate. It normally takes about four to six weeks, but it can take much longer.
Cooking with achiote paste is not a foreign concept for some people, especially if they are familiar with Latin American recipes. Achiote paste is a popular Yucatecan ingredient, and is usually called “recado rojo.” It’s generally a mixture of annatto seeds, peppercorns, allspice berries, cumin and other spices. Judging by the wide variety of spices present in recado rojo, many people ask what achiote paste tastes like. The paste actually has an earthy and zesty flavor, which goes great with chicken and other meats.13
If you’re not familiar with achiote paste or have never encountered it in specialty markets or grocery stores, here is an easy recipe you can follow to make it:14
Achiote Paste Recipe
1. Put all ingredients into a spice grinder and grind until you have a fine powder.
2. Take the powder and put it in a bowl. Add water gradually until you get a thick paste with a putty-like consistency.
3. Separate into tablespoon-size portions and freeze individually.
3. When you want to use it, mix the tablespoon-size portion with crushed garlic (10 cloves), and 4 tablespoons of orange juice.
Use this to marinate chicken or pork overnight.
Now that you have your own achiote paste, try this grilled chicken recipe adapted from Rouxbe.com:15
Achiote Marinated Grilled Chicken
• 1 to 4 pounds pastured chicken (preferably brined)
• 2 ounce achiote paste
• 2 to 3 limes (6 tablespoons)
• 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
• 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
• 1 teaspoon dried oregano
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• 1 tablespoon chipotle adobo sauce
• 2 teaspoons Himalayan salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Into a small bowl, break up the achiote paste. Add the oregano and cumin, and mash with a fork.
2. Add the lime juice, vinegar, oil, garlic and chipotle sauce. Mix, then add the salt and pepper. Add a touch of salt or pepper if needed. You can add chipotle peppers from the can.
3. Butterfly the chicken. Take half of the marinade and set aside. Take the remaining marinade and rub it on the chicken. Rub under the skin to allow flavors to seep to the flesh.
4. Place the chicken in a suitable container and cover. Marinate in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours or overnight.
4. After marinating, preheat the barbecue grill to medium-high. As much as possible, cook the chicken over indirect heat.
5. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place it breast-side up on the grill. Let the chicken cook for about 30 minutes with the lid closed. Check on it occasionally to make sure that the chicken isn’t burning.
6. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over to cook on the other side. Cook for another 10 to 20 minutes or until it is cooked through.
7. For the reserved marinade, heat it in a small pot and add a bit of oil. Taste for seasoning.
8. Carve the chicken and serve. Use the reserved marinade as sauce.
Achiote oil is often used in cooking, mixed in marinades or for adding color to dishes. The good news is that acquiring achiote oil is not as gruesome as other types of oils, because you can make it from scratch. Here is the recipe for making your own achiote oil:16
- 1 cup coconut oil
- 2 tablespoons achiote/annatto seeds
- Heat oil and seeds in a small sauce pan over medium heat, just to boiling or until oil is colored.
- Remove from heat. Do not overheat or you will turn the seeds black and your oil will be unusable.
- Strain the oil into a glass mason jar. You can store unused oil at room temperature for up to five days. Use the extra oil to color and flavor fish or chicken dishes.
Achiote seeds are probably the easiest form of achiote to find in markets and food stores. The other forms that are usually used in cuisine include achiote powder, paste and oil. The problem with buying these products in bulk is how you’ll be able to store them for long periods of time.
To help you answer these storage questions, here are some recommended tips on how you can store achiote in various forms:
- Seeds — Store in an airtight container out of direct light.
- Powder — Keep in an airtight container and store in a cool, dry and dark location. This can last for up to three years.
- Paste — Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. This can only last for a few months.17
- Oil — Store unused oil at room temperature for only five days. Seal the jar and refrigerate. This can last for up to eight weeks.18
Sources and References
- 1, 17 Foster, Kelli, The Kitchn, Inside the Spice Cabinet: Achiote
- 2 Smith, James, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Annatto Extracts
- 3 Survival International, Annatto: From Amazonian Body Paint to Popcorn
- 4, 5 Rivera-Madrid, Aguilar-Espinosa, et al. US National Library of Medicine, Carotenoid Derivatives in Achiote Seeds: Synthesis and Health Promoting Prope
- 6 Stohs, SJ, US National Library of Medicine, Sagery and efficacy of Bixa Orellana (Achote, Annatto) Leaf Extracts
- 7 Organic Facts, Health Benefits of Annatto
- 8 MedicalHealthGuide, Achiote (Bixa Orellana Linn) Herbal Medicine
- 9 HerbaZest, Achiote
- 10 Vilar, Moura, et al. US National Library of Medicine, Traditional Uses, Chemical Constituents, and Biological Activities of Bixa Orellana
- 11 Maya-Ethnobotany, Achiote, Bixa Orellana, Annatto
- 12 Plant World Seeds, Bixa Orellana
- 13 La Perla Spice Company, Achiote and Bistek Information
- 14 Food, Achiote Paste
- 15 Rouxbe: Cooking School, Achiote-Marinated Grilled Chicken
- 16 The Spice House, Achiote Oil
- 18 Lars Kristian Sorensen, The Latin Kitchen, How to Make Annatto Oil