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Also called annatto seeds or Roucou, the achiote seeds are obtained from the Achiote tree, commonly found in the tropical regions of the United States. Originally cultivated in Southern American regions, these achiote seeds are mostly found being used in Mexican and Caribbean cuisines. Achiote seeds are reddish-brown seeds and are added primarily to dishes, for the lovely deep-orange or yellow hue that they impart. Although the flavor of these seeds cannot be compared to the unique flavor of saffron, oft we can use these seeds to substitute saffron's golden color. This is why these seeds are also known as 'poor man's saffron', as it's cheaper than saffron and can be used as a substitute in dishes.

These seeds are available all the year round and are available in several forms, right from paste to powder to oil. Achiote spice can be used for both culinary, as well as coloring purposes.

Culinary Uses

Prized for their earthy, slightly bitter flavor, achiote seeds are used to provide a sweet as well as peppery flavor to the dishes.

Achiote Seeds
This is the most commonly available form of achiote spice. Brick-red, 3-5 mm, triangular-shaped seeds are found being sold in bags. While purchasing achiote seeds, make sure you buy seeds that are brick-red in color and not the ones that appear brown. The brown seeds are flavorless.

Achiote Paste
Achiote paste serves as a wonderful marinade for pork or chicken. Meat rubbed with achiote paste and then grilled or roasted simply looks and tastes fantastic. To prepare this paste in a spice grinder, add achiote seeds (5 tablespoons), cumin seeds (2 tsp), black peppercorns (1 tbsp), whole cloves (½ tsp) and 8 whole all-spice berries and grind well till you get a fine powder. Transfer this powder into a blender and to it add 3 seeded habanero peppers, ½ cup white vinegar, ½ cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons salt and 8 cloves of garlic and blend until a smooth paste is obtained. Add to it the juice of 5 lemons and a tsp of tequila. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate.

Achiote Powder
Achiote powder can be used as a flavoring agent as well as a dye. The powder is dark-red in appearance, with a slightly tart flavor. Ready-made achiote powder is not easily found in the stores, nor can achiote powder be easily prepared at home. Achiote seeds are quite tough to grind, even if one is using a coffee grinder. The tough achiote seeds need to be pulverized in a high-speed spice grinder, to transform them into a fine powder. Thus, it's not possible to prepare achiote powder at home. You can prepare achiote paste and use it in dishes.

Achiote Oil
Achiote oil has a rich, brick-red color. Vietnamese batters were seen to rub the oil onto the chicken or duck's skin before cooking, to get a glorious colored dish. In Latin American and Mexican cooking, it is used for frying poultry and fish. To prepare this achiote oil, take one cup of flavorless vegetable oil and heat it in a medium-sized saucepan. Add ½ cup of achiote seeds and heat for 5-10 minutes, till the oil attains a rich golden hue. Allow the oil to cool and then strain the oil. Discard the seeds. Pour the oil in an airtight container and refrigerate it. Achiote oil if stored properly in an airtight container and refrigerated, will have a shelf life of about a year.

Coloring Purposes

Annatto is valued for its deep, vibrant and somewhat seductive reddish color. These seeds are used to add color to margarines, cheeses, confectionery, smoked fish and butter. They are also used to impart the desired color to stews, rice dishes, casseroles or tamales. There are two ways in which the dish can be colored: one way is by adding the seeds directly to the cooking liquid like stew, etc. The other way is by infusing the seeds in hot water till the desired color is obtained, after which that achiote-infused water is added to stocks and dishes, for imparting the rich reddish-gold color. Besides, coloring food items, achiote seeds are also used to dye candies, cosmetics and textiles.

Achiote seeds are found whole or ground, in Spanish, Latin American and East Indian markets. They are used to prepare the classic dishes: pollo pibil, achiote chicken with cilantro dumplings, etc. If you do not have these seeds, saffron can be added as a substitute. For color, you can also substitute it with equal amounts of turmeric and paprika.