Sleeper Spices: Annatto

Wake up your palate and expand your cooking repertoire with spices you may not have experienced before. In this second installment of our series highlighting “sleeper” spices, learn about the unique seasoning and coloring capabilities of annatto — and get tips for using it to awaken your next cooking endeavor.

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What it tastes like: Annatto seeds, or achiote, come from a tropical South American tree. The seeds are usually ground into a powder for culinary use and have a nut-like, slightly peppery-spicy flavor. Some liken the taste to a less emphatic melange of nutmeg and black pepper.

What it looks like: The whole seeds of annatto are irregularly triangle-shaped and about an eighth of an inch wide. They have a brick- to barn-red color, as does the powder due to the intensely yellow to orange-colored carotenoid compounds bixin and norbixin. The red color of the spice becomes orange to yellow when diluted in the cooking process in the same way that the red color of saffron spice colors dishes a saffron yellow. Annatto lends a yellow to orange color to commercially-produced cheddar and American cheese, butter and many other foods.

How to use it: If you’ve tried and failed to replicate the colorful, tangy-spicy rice from your favorite Mexican restaurant at home, it’s likely because you aren’t adding annatto. Use one tablespoon annatto powder per cup of rice and cook it in the oil along with your other aromatics before adding the rice and broth.

Here are a few tips about how to use the seeds:

  • Use annatto powder to add a tangy-spicy flavor to dry rubs for grilled chicken or pork.
  • Gently simmer whole annatto seeds in hot oil along with garlic, cumin and coriander seeds and strain to get a brilliantly colored and flavorful cooking oil.
  • Combine powdered annatto seeds, ground cumin and coriander, and mashed roasted garlic with freshly squeezed orange juice to make a wet rub for grilled meats, or thin with liquid and use as a marinade.
  • Buy annatto as whole seeds if you use it infrequently — the seeds have a longer shelf life than powdered annatto.

What is your experience using annatto? Share in the comments below!

Tom-HavranAbout the author: Tom is communicator of natural living for Frontier, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia brands. In other words, he’s a very imaginative copywriter. A local boy, raised on a farm just down the road from the company’s headquarters in Norway, Tom enjoys drawing, plant hoarding, cooking and living the simple life in the beautiful state of Iowa.

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