Achiote, also known as annatto, is a popular natural food coloring and flavoring agent used in Latin American, Caribbean, and Filipino cuisines.
It comes from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana) and can be found in several forms including whole seeds, powder, and paste.
Achiote Seeds: The Source of All Forms
The achiote tree is native to tropical regions of the Americas, especially Mexico and Central America. The small, red-orange seeds are surrounded by a thin, papery shell and have an earthy, slightly peppery taste.
Achiote seeds are very hard in their whole form. To release their coloring power and flavor, the seeds need to be ground down into a powder or processed into a paste.
So whether you ultimately use achiote powder or paste in cooking, it all starts from those little seeds!
Key Takeaway: Achiote seeds provide the base flavor and color for both achiote powder and paste. The hard seeds must be processed to unlock their full potential.
Making Achiote Powder
Achiote powder is made by simply drying and finely grinding whole annatto seeds into a powder. No other ingredients are added.
The powder has an earthy, mildly spicy flavor. When added to food, it imparts a yellow-orange coloring.
Achiote powder is convenient to buy pre-made, but you can also easily grind dry seeds yourself at home using:
- A mortar and pestle
- A spice grinder or small food processor
- A coffee grinder (dedicated for spices)
Make sure to grind the seeds finely into a powder - any remaining chunks or seeds will give an unpleasant texture in recipes.
Key Takeaway: Achiote powder consists solely of ground annatto seeds, providing pure flavor and coloring without other added ingredients.
Creating Achiote Paste
Achiote paste involves more ingredients and processing compared to the powder. Traditional recipes combine:
- Ground annatto seeds
- Vinegar and/or citrus juice
- Spices like cumin, oregano, pepper
The annatto seeds are first toasted then ground to a powder. They provide the distinctive reddish coloring.
Garlic adds a pungency that works well with annatto's earthiness. Vinegar or citrus juice helps form the paste texture and adds bright, tangy notes.
Spices like cumin and oregano enhance the warm, peppery aspect of annatto.
Once combined, the mixture is processed into a smooth, thick paste perfect for coloring and flavoring meats.
Key Takeaway: Achiote paste contains ground annatto seeds plus garlic, vinegar/citrus juice, and spices. This creates a flavorful, saucy paste.
Achiote Powder vs. Paste Comparison
Now that you know how they're made, here's a helpful comparison of the characteristics of achiote powder and paste:
|Ground achiote seeds
|Ground achiote seeds, garlic, vinegar/citrus juice, spices
|Dry, loose powder
|Wet, thick paste
|Earthy, mildly spicy
|Earthy, tangy, spicy
|Seasoning, coloring agent
|Marinade, sauce, rub
|Easily found pre-made
|Often must be homemade
As you can see, the paste contains more ingredients and is wetter in texture. It has a more complex, punchy flavor. The powder is simpler, drier, and milder.
Key Takeaway: Achiote powder has a drier texture and milder taste than the paste, which is wet and packs a tangy, spicy punch. Powder seasons, while paste marinates.
How To Use Achiote Paste vs. Powder
Now let's get into the specific uses for achiote paste and powder. Here are tips for integrating each into recipes:
Using Achiote Paste
- Marinade meat: Rub achiote paste directly onto chicken, pork, fish or beef. Let marinate 4-12 hours.
- Brunoise sauce: Thin paste with water, stock or citrus juice for a bright sauce.
- Flavor rice: Stir a spoonful of paste into rice as it cooks for color and mild spice.
- Roast veggies: Toss paste with veggies before roasting for caramelized, tangy flavor.
- Soup base: Add a little paste to soups and stews for earthy depth.
- Spread: Smear onto tortillas or bread before building sandwiches.
The paste works anywhere you want big, bold achiote flavor!
Using Achiote Powder
- Season meat: Rub powder over meat as a straight seasoning instead of marinade.
- Color rice: Add during cooking for visual impact and subtle flavor.
- Spice rubs: Mix into dry rubs along with cumin, garlic, oregano.
- Sauce coloring: Whisk into tomato or creamy sauces for orange hue.
- Fines herbes: Sprinkle over finished dishes as a final flourish.
- Baking: Add earthy color and flavor to baked goods like cornbread.
The powder integrates easily anywhere you want mild achiote essence or color.
Key Takeaway: Achiote paste excels as a marinade and sauce, while the powder is perfect for directly seasoning or subtly coloring a dish.
Where can I buy achiote paste and powder?
Both forms can be found at well-stocked grocery stores, Latin markets, or online. Goya is a popular paste brand. Badia and La Preferida sell good powders. Purchase whole annatto seeds to grind at home.
What's the shelf life of achiote paste and powder?
Achiote paste lasts 4-6 months refrigerated. Freeze for longer storage.
Achiote powder keeps 1-3 years in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot.
Is there a substitute for achiote paste?
Yes! To substitute 1 tablespoon paste, combine:
You can also use saffron, turmeric, or annatto powder.
What recipes use achiote?
Popular achiote dishes include:
- Cochinita pibil: Mexican citrus-marinated pork
- Tamales and empanadas: Achiote adds flavor and color
- Arroz con pollo: Cuban chicken and rice
- Encebollado: Ecuadorian fish stew
- Achiote chicken: Roasted or grilled chicken
While achiote paste and powder stem from the same source, they are used differently to provide bold flavor or subtle spice and color.
Achiote paste excels as a marinade and sauce base, offering a tangy, garlicky, robust taste.
Meanwhile, achiote powder seasons and colors without overpowering, letting other ingredients shine.
No matter which form you choose, achiote is a unique ingredient that brings authentic Latin flavor to everything from grilled meats to rice dishes and stews.