A derivative of achiote seed, the slightly musky-flavored seed of the annatto tree. Annatto is available whole or ground in East Indian, Spanish and Latin American markets. Buy whole seeds when they're a rusty red color; brown seeds are old and flavorless.
Americans may recognize annatto from ingredient statements on packaged foods, where the spice is primarily used to provide orange-red color in butter, margarine, cheese and smoked fish. However, annatto is a staple in Latin American cooking, imparting flavor as well as color.
As the Hispanic population in the United States grows, so does the demand for annatto; as Americans discover its earthy flavor, annatto is becoming much more than just a splash of color in our food. Like paprika and saffron, annatto is a key component in a number of dishes. Whole or ground annatto seeds can be steeped or roasted in oil, then combined with other spices to create a flavorful paste for rice, beans, meats, stews, soups, and tamales. Annatto is also prevalent in Caribbean and Asian cuisines and is a natural partner for Southwestern dishes.
What The Experts Say
"I use annatto to make a flavored oil for fish or pork tenderloin," says Chef Tory McPhail, of Commander's Palace in New Orleans. "I also grind the seed and combine it with salt, black pepper, ground ginger, and garlic as a rub for shrimp."
Perfect Flavor Partners Include:
black pepper, chile peppers, cilantro, cumin, garlic, ginger, lime, and oregano
Earthy, with a slight edge of bitterness