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Achiote, or annatto, is a natural red food coloring used in Latin cuisine. I’ll explain how to make achiote oil and paste easily at home!
If you’re a fan of Mexican dishes like pollo asado and cochinita pibil (Yucatan pork), you’ve already experienced the vibrant color that achiote provides. Or rather, the ground annatto seeds from the achiote tree, and the paste and oil that can be made from them.
Achiote and annatto seeds
This natural red food coloring comes from the seeds of a shrub (the botanical name is Bixa Orellana) that is native to South America. Sold as dried seeds, powder, and paste, the products are typically used for cooking purposes. However, studies show that there are also potential health benefits of annatto seeds, so it’s sometimes used medicinally as well.
The seeds are a vibrant reddish-orange in color, with a peppery aroma and smoky flavor. Surprisingly, the resulting color that achiote adds to food is more of a yellowish-orange.
Instead of buying the products yourself, I’ll show you how to make achiote/annatto paste and achiote oil yourself. It’s less expensive than buying them, and beyond easy to do!
At the grocery store, the paste is sold in 4-ounce blocks, but that doesn’t last long when you make a lot of Mexican dishes!
Achiote paste (also known as recado rojo) is made by grinding annatto seeds and combining them with vinegar, garlic and peppery spices like oregano, cumin, cinnamon and clove.
Uses for achiote paste
Annatto paste can be added as-is into any dish you’re making to add color and flavor. You can also use it as a rub for chicken or pork, and it’s great as a marinade and a sauce as well.
I use achiote oil when I make empanada dough to give it a vibrant color.
Achiote paste substitute
If you need a substitute, it’s easy to make. To make 2 ounces of paste (approx. 1/4 cup), combine the following ingredients together in a small bowl:
- 3 tbsp paprika
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- 2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
If you steep fresh annatto seeds in cooking oil, the oil is infused with a rich, deep red color. The achiote oil, or achiotina can be used for sauteing or stove top cooking to give the dish a rich yellow/red color.
This is what gives the yellow color to chorizo! You can also add it to fresh masa for flavor and color and press your own tortillas as I do for Yucatan-style Mexican tostadas.
Storage and shelf life
- Achiote seeds and powder
Store the seeds and powder in airtight containers and keep them in a cool, dark, dry location. They should stay fresh this way for up to three years.
- Annatto paste
Store bought paste lasts a few months in the refrigerator, but there are usually preservatives added to lengthen the shelf life. Homemade achiote paste stays fresh for 2 weeks if wrapped well and kept in the refrigerator.
To extend the shelf life of the paste, wrap it well and freeze it for up to a year.
- Achiote oil
The oil has a shelf life of 1 week at room temperature, or up to 4 months in the refrigerator. I keep mine in a squirt bottle near my stove top.
This post, originally published on Kevin is Cooking on Aug. 13, 2013, was last updated with new content on Oct. 9, 2021.
Achiote + Annatto Paste and Oil Recipes
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup annatto seeds
- Bring the vegetable oil and annatto seeds to a boil in a small saucepan. Turn heat off and steep, uncovered for 5 minutes.
- Let stand until it comes to room temperature and strain oil from seeds into a squeeze bottle. Discard used seeds.
- I keep in a plastic squeeze bottle and use that as needed near my stove top. Good for 1 week.
- Grind the annatto seeds to powder in a spice or coffee grinder.
- Mix all of the ingredients together in a small bowl until a paste forms.
- Stays fresh for 2 weeks if wrapped well and kept in the refrigerator. This makes about 4 ounces or 1/2 cup total.
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.