Achiote is flavoring and coloring agent that is used extensively in Mexican cooking. It is made from annatto seeds. Achiote is sometimes called “saffron of Mexico.”
Annatto seeds have a deep yellow to deep red color that impart an orange or yellow color too foods. They also have a nutty, musky and earthy flavor of their own. They come from a tropical tree called the achioteroucou, and whose scientific name is Bixa orellana. The tree produces spiky reddish-brown pods with the seeds inside.
Mexicans often uses a paste called achiote which is made from ground annatto seeds and other herbs and spices such as oregano, cumin, cloves, allspice, black pepper, and garlic, although the ingredients may vary.
The most basic achiote paste will contain nothing but seeds, salt, sugar, and a touch of an acid ingredient.
Ahciote is used in many dishes, especially in the Yucatan region and Oaxaca; and helps give color to rice dishes. Premade brands such as El Yucateo achiote paste, are available. Annatto seeds can also be found in powdered form.
Annatto seeds are not only used in Mexican cooking, of course. They are also popular in South America, and in the Spanish Caribbean. The seeds were much prized by Native American tribes, who used them not only for food, but to produce dyes for painting the skin and hair, both for ceremonial and practical purposes, such as protection from the sun. Today, annatto is used extensively as a food colorant, most familiarly in butter, cheese, and margarine products, to give a yellow color. It is responsible for the deep yellow color of most Cheddar cheeses and other cheese varieties, for example, which would otherwise be a white or pale yellow. In the U.S., annatto extract used to color foods is exempt from certification. When used, the ingredients listing will use it’s common name, annatto.