The Many Uses of Annatto/Achiote

Screen Shot 2019-07-28 at 9.51.35 AMBy Julie Etra

Bixa orellana is the scientific name of a small tree or large shrub originally native to the state of Amazonas in Brazil, but which thrives in most tropical and semi-tropical climates. It is considered ‘native’ to Mexico and is found in suitable climates elsewhere in Central and South America. It is also known as achiote, or achiotl (“grain” or “seed” in Nahuatl, the native tongue of the Mexica, also known as the Aztecs).  

The “orellana” part of the scientific name comes from Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish conquistador who is credited with the first complete navigation of the Amazon River. “Bixa” is apparently a Taino word – the Taino or Arawak were the indigenous people of the Caribbean (although decimated by disease, survivors intermarried and there are remaining descendants, particularly in Puerto Rico). Annatto is also known in Brazil as colorau, urucum or colorífico. It is a tough tree and can grow in somewhat marginal soils. It can withstand strong winds, is fire, drought and pest resistant, but will not tolerate cold or excessive rain.

The flower of this indigenous tree is gorgeous, with five bright pink petals. The multiple red fruits occur in clusters and are covered in soft spines; inside reside numerous hard seeds. A bright orange-red dye commonly known as annatto is obtained from the waxy seed coating. 

The pigment in annatto is a carotenoid, a compound that is also responsible for the orange color in carrots, pumpkins, daffodils, and canaries. This dye has been in use for centuries, pre-dating the Spanish conquest. The Mexica used it as a body dye, particularly for lips (hence another common name is lipstick tree), and to dye textiles. The Maya used it as a spice and for coloring, as in body paint for religious rites, particularly those associated with rain, and as a symbolic substitute for blood.  It was used as a ceramic colorant and in building materials, and as ink in Mayan culture. Its use as a food dye is also ancient, as the Mexica used it to color a corn beverage. The seeds had monetary value and were used in trade and as a female aphrodisiac.

Other parts of the tree, such as the leaves, have medicinal value and have been used to treat cancer and fevers. Its current use as a food dye is ubiquitous; it is often the orange in cheddar cheese, margarine, custards, and even meat, particularly in Central America. Non-food items include soap, shoe polishes, furniture oils and waxes.  

How many readers have heard of achiote paste? Cochinita pibil? Cochinita refers to pork, and pib is Mayan for earthen oven.  This is a traditional Mayan dish flavored with a paste made of ground achiote seeds and other spices. It is typically made with marinated pork slow-cooked in banana leaves, but other meat can be used. The Mayans most likely used jungle fowl such as quail or domesticated turkey (the Spanish brought chicken), and slow cooked in soil pits. When in Mexico I cook it in clay pots, and in the US in cast iron; banana leaves are in short supply here in Reno, NV. ­

Although you can buy this condiment pre-made in many Mexican groceries, it is NOT EVEN CLOSE to the homemade version from scratch. Buy the seeds, add the other spices, and grind away (there are lots of recipes out there – here’s one from Bon Appetit: You won’t go back. Super yummy with corn tortillas and salsas, pickled onion (escabeche) and avocado. 

Achiote Paste

from Bon Appetit


  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ cup annatto seeds
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican or Italian oregano
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • ¼ cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

Recipe Preparation

Blend cloves, bay leaf, annatto seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, oregano, peppercorns, and

salt in a blender on low speed, increasing to high, until finely ground.

Add garlic, vinegar, lime zest, and orange zest and continue blending until a coarse paste forms.

Transfer to a small airtight container and chill.

Do Ahead: Paste can be made 1 month ahead. Store in an airtight container and chill.