Annatto seeds are used in many cuisines to add a beautiful red color and enhance various dishes’ flavor. Let’s find out more about these tiny seeds and how we can use them in cooking.
What is annatto seed?
Annatto seeds are seeds of the Achiote tree or Bixa orellana. You can find them being used in the Caribbean, Latin American, and Southeast Asian cuisine. They are tiny seeds, resemble small pebbles with a dark, brick red color.
People use it as an ingredient to add color to certain food. It has a peppery taste and can enhance flavor. They are available in whole seeds, powder, or oil form.
The terms achiote and annatto are used interchangeably. If different recipes call for annatto oil or achiote oil, it is the same thing.
What does it tastes like
They have an earthy and slightly peppery taste. People use annatto powder or annatto oil mostly to adds a nice orange-red color to food. It is hard to notice annatto’s taste if using a small quantity, especially in a recipe with other spices.
Avoid over-use as too much annatto can give off an unpleasant, bitter taste. Follow the recipe closely on the quantity and direction to use.
How to use
Whole annatto seeds
People mostly extract color from whole annatto seeds. You can steep them in boiling water for 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the seeds after the desired color is obtained.
In Vietnamese cooking, we make dau mau dieu – annatto oil by adding a small number of annatto seeds to oil (1 Tbsp annatto seeds for 1/4 cup vegetable oil). Cook them for a few minutes over medium heat until the oil has a nice orange-red color. Turn off heat. Once cooled, strain the oil and discard the seeds. Pour annatto oil into a glass container and use them as needed. Store annatto oil in the fridge.
You can also steep them in hot oil (heat off) or boiling water for about 20 minutes until the desired color is obtained, then discard the seeds.
Many people wonder if they can grind these seeds at home. But I think you shouldn’t try to do that. Technically you can somehow grind them using a mortar and pestle. But the seeds can stain things easily, and the powder you grind will not be as fine as needed for cooking.
Annatto powder or Ground annatto
It is convenient to use annatto powder. You can add it directly to food when marinating or during cooking. The adding of annatto powder will make the food look more visually appealing.
In Vietnamese cooking, we mostly use annatto powder or annatto oil when marinating meat or seafood. For dishes like pork skewers or beef jerky, a bit of annatto oil or powder can make the dish look much more appetizing. Noodle soup dishes like banh canh cua – crab tapioca noodle soup also use a bit of annatto oil to add a reddish color to the broth.
Do annatto seeds go bad?
They do have an expiration date (2 to 3 years) and can go bad if not stored properly. It is best to store them in an airtight container in a dark, cool place, away from direct sunlight.
For annatto oil, pour them into an airtight glass container and store in the fridge. It can last for a few months but it is best to use them within a month. At room temperature, you can only use annatto oil for a few days.
Annatto seeds vs Paprika
Annatto seeds are a food coloring condiment from the Achiote tree. Paprika is a ground spice made from dried pepper pods in the Capsicum annum family. Ground annatto seeds have a dark, brick red color, while paprika powder, depending on the varieties, can have an orange-red or deep red color.
People use annatto seeds mostly for coloring food, but paprika can add flavor, color, or sprinkle on food (for example, deviled eggs) before serving.
When it comes to flavor, annatto seeds have an earthy flavor profile and no spiciness. On the other hand, the flavor of paprika can range from mild, sweet to bitter, and spicy.
That is because paprika can be made from different types of peppers like cayenne peppers, sweet peppers, hot chili peppers, aleppo peppers, and other varieties.
Depend on the flavor of that specific pepper or a mix of few varieties, the ground paprika will have a different heat level and flavor profile.
Where to buy
Annatto seeds are available in most Asian markets, in the spices aisle. You will likely find annatto seeds in a Vietnamese or Philippines market in your neighborhood. Some grocery stores that carry Mexican ingredients also carry annatto seeds.
For convenience, you can go on Amazon or an online spice shop to buy annatto seeds. Both whole annatto seeds and ground annatto are available at an affordable price. I suggest buying a small jar or pouch to use as you only need a little bit each time.