Special Ingredients – Annato (Annatto)

Annato and I are old friends, having been introduced by our mutual buddy, Wisconsin cheddar cheese, which as you may know, owes its sunny yellow disposition to annato.  This practice of coloring cheese started as early as 1860, and the orignial intent is unknown; English cheese maker Joseph Harding stated “to the cheese consumers of London who prefer an adulterated food to that which is pure I have to announce an improvement in the annato with which they compel the cheese makers to colour the cheese”   Annato is definitely a part of those cheese curds, whose consumption was a favorite childhood memory.  But, until I attended cooking school in Mexico, I did not realize the full extent to my friend’s talents.

Mexican cookbooks

Mexican cookbooks

I became suspicious when I attended cooking school in Mérida, Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula.  A key component of our cooking was a spice mixture called achiote, and you guessed it, the primary ingredient was annato.  One taste of the results made me determined to pursue a deeper relationship with my friend.

Annato can also go by the name roucou, and its presence in our food is actually very common.  I suspect you are far more familiarwith it than you realise – Its a bit of a wall flower and does not get the recognition it deserves for its contribution to our cuisine.  In addition to coloring American cheddar cheese, it is also found in the cuisines of Latin American, the Caribbean, and some Asian countries.  It colors Red Leicester and Brie cheeses, custard powder and and smoked fish.  Annatois even added to butter, as cows that get little pasture time produce pale milk fat, and the butter maker compensates by coloring her product with annato.  Margarine gets the same annato treatment, but for different reasons.

I think annato has a distinct taste and scent, so I was surprised that some of its uses were for coloring.  (although in my research some people disagree, claiming it has neither taste or scent)  The scent hits me like cilantro – fresh and sharp.  The taste, according to the folks at wiki, is slightly sweet and peppery.  I struggle with that description, and I am not sure that fully describes annato, to me there is also an element of citrus as well.

Annato uses around the world

annato options

annato options

Annato has long been used by in the Caribbean and South America, and is thought to have originated in Brazil.  Its first use was probably not a food coloring but most likely body painting, and as an insect repellent.  The Aztecs called it achiotl, and it was used for Mexican manuscript painting in the sixteenth century.  In Jamaica, annatto has many uses, including as a food dye, body paint, treatment for heartburn and stomach distress, sunscreen and insect repellent.  In Europe, the seeds were used to deepen the color of chocolate until the 17th century.

 Annatto is common in Latin America and Caribbean cuisines as both a coloring agent and for flavoring.  In the Caribbean, both fruit and tree are popularly called achiote or bija (pronounced “bee-ha”) instead of Bixa  There, the seeds are fried in fat, and then discarded leaving a golden-yellow fat used to fry vegetables or meat.  In Central and South American, the seeds are a component in a body paint and lipstick. For this reason, theachiote is sometimes called the lipstick-tree.

Venezuelans use annatto (onoto) in hallacas, perico, and other traditional dishes. In Brazil, annatto (the product) and the tree (Bixa orellana L.) are called urucum and the product alone may also be called colorau.   In the Philippines, it is called atsuete and is used as food coloring in traditional dishes.

annatto in its natural state

annatto in its natural state (photo from wiki)

Annatto’s use in Asia is limited, but it sees service in Philippino and Vietnamese cooking.  On occassion in China, where it is occassionally found in the seasonings or marinades for grilled or fried meats (predominantly pork), resulting in a bright orange meat surface.  In the Philippines, the seeds are often ground and added to soups and stews, achieving a golden yellow to brown color.  In Vietnam, batters often contain annatto oil to archieve a more attractive color.  In the Vietnamese version of Beijing duck (ga quay mat ong), the bird’s skin is brushed with annatto oil resulting in a reddish-brown meat.

Common culinary treatments:

 Annato oil– the oil is a bright orange color, and I’ve seen and used it in rice dishes.  You can buy annato oil, or just as easily make it yourself.  A lot of times you make it as you make your rice dish by sauting the seeds in the oil, removing the seeds, leaving the oil to saute the next ingredient, which is generally the onions.

annato seeds

annato seeds

Ground spice – these little beauties are tough to grind – I use an old coffee grinder to get them to the desired consistency, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who grinds this spice by hand.  Meandering through the Merida market, we discovered blocks of the recardo rojo, recado negro and other combinations stacked on tables, and sold for what seemed like small sums, especially knowing the labor involved.  It was a beautful site.  Recado negro, by the way, is basically the same as the recado rojo (recipe below) but with the addition of dried chili peppers that have been charred until they are black.  Recado rojo is traditionally used on meat, and the recado negro is associated with shrimp, and fish.  I’ve mixed and matched with great abandon and I can tell you its all good.


 It is a major ingredient in the popular spice blend “Sazón” made by Goya Foods.

Annatto allergies

Annattois linked with many food allergies, and is the only natural food coloring believed to cause as many allergic reactions as artificial food coloring.  Because it is a natural colorant, companies using annatto may label their products “all natural” or “no artificial colors”.  However, if you have food dye sensitivity, you may want to avoid products containing annatto.

A ubiquitious dish of the Yucatan

Recado Rojo (~4oz)

  • 1T oregano Yucateco (or Mexican oregano) toasted in a heaby skillet – cast iron is great
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 4 heaping T annato seed
  • 12 whole allspice
  • 1/2 tsp.pepper corns
  • 3-6 T water or white vinegar (I prefer the vinegar)

Grind all the spices until fine, than pass through a sieve to remove any stems, shell, etc.  Grind and strain another time or two until very uniform and fine.

In a small bowl, add the water or vinegar to the spice combination.  Mix until it becomes a stiff paste.

Storage:  This stuff stores great in the freezer. 

Pork Roast Estilo Cochinita Pibil (serves 10)

photo from yucatantraditional

photo from yucatantraditional

This recipe, along with all pibil dishes are cooked in a pib.  Excuse me, I live in an apartment in San Franciso – access to a pib is not an option (a pib being a hand-dug pit, lined with fiery coals and hot stones) and marching over to the Golden Gate Park is out of the question, too.  So with great success, I’ve grilled, roasted, and a personal favorite – smoked (I have a stove top smoker) the pork roast.  I stay true to the rest of the recipe.

  • 1 c sea salt to 1 gallon wather
  • 1 3# pork loin or crown pork roast
  • 8 T recado rojo
  • 8 T naranja agria juice  (this juice of the bitter orange or Seville orange are other names, and you can find it in most international markets it comes in a good size bottle.  You can also substitute a combination of orange and lemon juice to get a tart combination)
  • 1T oregan Yucateco
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1 tsp peppercorns
  •  banana leaves  (this ingredient can be tough to find, but I’ve had luck finding them in Asian markets in the frozen food section – they are very fragile think of filo dough)
  • 2 chile dulce (or green bell peppers)
  • 1 large white onion
  • 2 large roma tomatoes
  • 1 bunch  fresh epazote (cilantro can be substituted)

Combine salt and water to make a brine.  Add the meat and brine over night in a refrigerator.

Disolve the recado rojo (achiote paste is a good substitute) in the juice.  Toast the oregano until it is smoking and fragrant (you have to watch it because it goes to smoking and charred really fast)  Blacken the garlic cloves either by added to the skillet or skewering and holding over an open flame.

With a molcajeteor mortar and pestle, coarsely grind the oregano, garlic, peppercorns, cumin and salt.  Add to the recado mixture and stir to combine.

Remove pork from the brine and pat dry with a paper towel.  Place in a large baking dish slathered with the sauce for about an hour.

Remove the pork from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature.  

Prepare the banana leaves by cutting away the spines – do not discard but bend them to make them pliable so they can act as string to tie the banana leaf packages together later.  Separate the leaves to be able to generously wrap the port – place the pork in the center of a leave, garnish with the chile dulce, onions (separated into rings) , tomato slices and a few sprigs of theepazote.  Fold the banana leaves as if you were wrapping a package and tie with the spines to secure.  You do not want any slits so that the juices can leak out.

Smoke, or cook, for approximately 30 – 45 minutes.  Insert a meat thermometer to read the temperature and when it reaches 150° Fahrenheit (65°  Celsius)  – its done.  Remove from heat and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes.  Allow the temperature to rise to 160°  Fahrenheit or 70°  Celsius.

Remove the pork, and either shred with a pair of forks, or serve it on platter if using a crown roast.  Save the juices.   If you use the shredded pork, its traditional to make tacos with some salsa (cebollas en escabeche)

Merida, Mexico – the Yucatan

Plaza in Merida

Plaza in Merida (photo from virtualtourist)

Mérida is the capital of the Yucatan Peninsula, with a population of over a quarter million people, making it the 12th most populous Mexican metropolis.  When we visitied, we concentrated a lot of time in the older part of town.  As we were there prior to Christmas people were coming in from the surrounding towns to shop for the holidays.  The outdoor cafes and shops had a lot of character and offered plenty of opportunitesto relax.  Mérida has the nickname “the White City”, although no one is sure how the moniker came to be.  A possible explanation includes that white was a common common color of its old buildings and decorated with “cal”.  Mérida is named after Mérida, Spain.

Mérida is located in the Northwest part of the state of Yucatán.  The city is also located in the approximate epicenter of the ChicxulubCrater.  Yucatán is very flat, and is never more than 30 feet above sea level. The land outsideof Mérida is covered with smaller scrub trees and former henequen fields.  Almost no surface water exists, but several cenotes (underground springs) are found across the state. Mérida has a centro historicotypical of colonial Spanish cities. The street grid is based on odd-numbered streets running east towest and even-numbered streets running north to south, with Calles 60 and 61 bounding the “Plaza Grande” in the heart of the city.   The grid pattern mademe feel like I was back in the Midwest.   The more affluent neighborhoods are located to the north, with the most densely populated areas are to the south. 

photo of Merida from LA Times

photo of Merida from LA Times

The Spanish spoken in the Yucatán is readily identifiable as different, even to non-native ears. It is heavily influenced by the Spanish accent and YucatecMaya language, still spoken by a third of the population of the Yucatán, although mostly confined to smaller towns.  The Mayan language is melodic, filled with”sh” sounds (represented by the letter “x” in the Mayan language) and full throaty vowels.   Encircled by the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and withpoor land communication with the rest of Mexico, Yucatecan Spanish retains many words not used in other Spanish speaking areas. 


Mérida was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo “el Mozo”.  It was built on the site of the Maya city of T’ho (also known as Ichcaanzihó or “city of the five hills”, referring to five pyramids) which for centuries, was a center of Mayan culture, making Mérida the oldest continually-occupied city in the Americas.

Many carved Maya stones from ancient T’ho were used to build the Spanish Colonial buildings found in downtown Mérida, and are visible, for instance, in the walls of the main Cathedral. Much of Mérida’s architecture from the Colonial period through the 18th century and 19th century remains in the centro historico of the city.  From colonial times through the mid 19th century, Mérida was a walled city to protect the residents from periodic revolts by the indigenous Maya.  Several of the old Spanish city gates survive, but modern Mérida extends well beyond the old city walls.  Late in the 19th century and the early 20th century, Mérida prospered from the production of henequén (known as sisal in English, because it was exported from the port of Sisal).  Around the turn of the 20th Century, it is said that Mérida had more millionaires than any other city in the world.

The result of the concentration of wealth can still be seen in Mérida.  Many large and elaborate homes still line the main avenue of Paseo de Montejo, though few are occupied by individual families.  Today, these homes serve as office buildings for banks and insurance companies.  Mérida has the one of the largest centro historico districts in the Americas.  Large and small colonial homes line the city streets, in various states of disrepair; but the historical center of Mérida is undergoing a minor renaissance as more people are moving into the old buildings and reviving their former glory.  The cooking school I attended is an excellent example.


As the state and regional capital, Mérida is a cultural center with multiple museums, art galleries, restaurants, movie theatres and shops.  Mérida retains an abundance of beautiful colonial buildings and is a vibrant cultural center.  The famous avenue, Paseo de Montejo, is lined with original sculpture.  Each year, the MACAY Museum in Mérida mounts a new sculpture installation, featuring works from Mexico and one other chosen country. 

Mérida and the state of Yucatán have traditionally been isolated from the rest of the country by geography, creating a unique culture. The conquistadors found the Mayan culture incredibly (or stubbornly) resilient, and their attempts to eradicate Mayan tradition, religion and culture saw only modest success. The remnants of the Mayan culture can be seen every day, in speech, dress, and in both written and oral histories. It is especially apparent in holidays like Hanal Pixan, a Mayan/Catholic Day of the Dead celebration, which falls on November 1 and 2 (one day for adults, and one for children) and is commemorated by elaborate altars dedicated to dead relatives.  We stopped by a cemetery shortly after this celebration, and the decorations were incredible; I was in awe as I wandered around.  It is a compromise between the two religions withcrucifixes mingled with skull decorations and food offerings.  Múkbil pollois the Mayan tamal pie offered to the dead on All Saints’ Day, traditionally accompanied by a cup of hot chocolate.  Many Yucatecans enjoying eating this on and around the Day of Dead, and while complicated to make, they can be purchased.  (Muk-bil literally means “to put in the ground” or to cook in a pib).

Yucatan Food

Yucatecanfood has its own unique style and is very different from what most people consider “Mexican” food, with its influences from the local Mayan culture, as well as Caribbean, Mexican, European and Middle Eastern cultures.

Yucatan has many regional dishes including:

  • Poc Chuc, a Mayan/Yucateco version of barbecued pork.
  • Salbutes and Panuchos  Salbutes are soft, cooked tortillas with lettuce, tomato, turkey and avocado on top. Panuchos feature fried tortillas filled with black beans, and topped with turkey or chicken, lettuce, avocado and pickled onions.  Habanerochiles accompany most dishes, either sliced or puréed, with fresh limes and corn tortillas.
  • Queso Rellenois a “gourmet” dish featuring ground pork inside of a carved edamcheese ball served with tomato sauce
  • Pavo en Relleno Negro (also known locally as Chilmole) is turkey meat stew cooked with a black paste made from roasted chiles, a local version of the mole de guajalote found throughout Mexico.  The meat soaked in the black soup, and served in tacos, or in panuchos or salbutes.
  • Sopa de Lima is a lime soup with a chicken broth base often accompanied by shredded chicken or turkey and crispy tortilla.  I had to have this soup every day of my stay – it is so tasty.
  • Papadzules. Egg “tacos” bathed with Pumpkin Seed sauce and tomatoes.
  • Cochinita Pibilis a marinated pork dish and the most renowned of the yucatecan food.
  • Bul keken,(Mayan for “beans and pork”) is a traditional black bean and pork soup. The soup is served in the home on Mondays in most Yucatán towns.  The soup is usually served withchopped onions, radishes, chilies, and tortillas.  I can vouch from my encounters with the soup whil in Merida, that it was a great pick-me-up before more sight seeing.
  • Brazo de reina,(Spanish for “The Queen’s Arm”) is a traditional tamal dish. A long, flat tamalis topped withground pumpkin seeds and rolled up, and cut into slices. The slices are topped with a tomato sauce and a pumpkin seed garnish.

Achiote is the most popular spice in the area. It is derived from the hard annatto seed found in the region. The whole

El Yucateco brand of hot sauce (photo from wiki)

photo from wiki

seed is ground together with other spices and formed into a reddish seasoning paste, called recado rojo. The other ingredients in the paste can include cinnamon, allspice berries, cloves, Mexican oregano, cumin seed, sea salt, peppercorns, vinegar, and garlic.  Like everyones favorite chili or regional dish, each cook adds their own signature combination.

 The most popular Mexican hot sauce, El Yucateco hot sauce, is made in Mérida, Yucatán.   Mérida hot sauce is typically made from the indigenous chilesin the area which include: Chile Xcatik, Chile Seco de Yucatán, and Chile Habenero.  The El Yucateco Chile Habanerois made from habanero peppers.  Unlike other hot sauces such as Tabasco, El Yucateco hot sauce uses habanero rather than vinegar as its base.  In a swtich that might catch some folks off guard, unlike most American sauces, the green sauce is much hotter than the red sauce.  This sauce is actually fairly easy to find, especially if you have access to a hispanic market.  I stocked up when I was in Mérida, only to find it at every corner market here in San Francisco.  Its funny how you can be blind to something and then suddenly its everywhere.


So there you have it, a bit more about my friend annato, and with that I’ll leave the two of you to get further acquainted.

Update me when site is updated

21 comments for “Special Ingredients – Annato (Annatto)

  1. dailyspud
    March 21, 2009 at 7:59 PM

    I will have to look for your friend. I’m not sure if he has made it to this European outpost, but I will keep an eye out!

  2. oysterculture
    March 21, 2009 at 8:28 PM

    Daily Spud – I think you would become fast friends. Potatoes would be delicious sauteed in annato oil with a bit of onion and peppers.

  3. cookappeal
    March 21, 2009 at 9:35 PM

    Wow, I forgot I had a wordpress account, so here goes…I have not responded to wordpress blogs because of this btw, so sorry.

    Being from Texas I am very familiar with this, and Rick Bayless…I love the food, the culture and one day hope I can travel to Oaxaca to learn that cuisine too!

  4. cookappeal
    March 21, 2009 at 9:36 PM

    Oh, and thank you for coming over to my blog and following me…I appreciate your input!

  5. oysterculture
    March 21, 2009 at 9:42 PM

    I’m glad you remembered your account! Oxaca is high on my list too! I want to learn moles from the masters. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. March 21, 2009 at 11:10 PM

    I’ve seen annato on ingredient labels, but I never made the connection between that and the strange red achiote paste hiding in my cupboard. I bought it several months ago after seeing a recipe (can’t remember which one) in one of my food magazines but I think it’s main purpose in that particular recipe was for coloring (obviously, I never got around to making said recipe). If the taste is anything like cilantro or citrus than I will definitely enjoy it. Probably should try to use it soon – I poke it everytime I see it peeking out from behind my canned chickpeas, I figure if it still feels soft and squishy than it must still be OK to eat (I wonder what the shelf life is?!)

  7. March 21, 2009 at 11:47 PM

    Thank you for a wonderful and informative post! This is a new ingredient to me and fascinating to learn about all its uses. I think I may find it in my supermarket. I will look next time.

    The pork roast looks wonderful!

  8. giverecipe2009
    March 22, 2009 at 9:11 AM

    I wish I was already an acquaintence of your friend. You made me so curious about annato, I’ll search for it in spice shops here. But I couldn’t find its Turkish meaning. Maybe I could show a picture of it with a subtitle “WANTED”.

  9. oysterculture
    March 22, 2009 at 10:15 AM

    If you start from scratch with the annato seeds – I know of at least on Penzy’s in Maryland. You can buy the achiote, but its typical that homemade gives more flavor etc, to the dish than the store bought. However, that being said, the store bought comes together so much faster!

  10. oysterculture
    March 22, 2009 at 10:19 AM

    The flavor is really hard to discribe, but the cilantro comparison for me was more the astringent bite the it has. I found another site which describes it as”The flavor is “earthy,” somewhat dusky but rich. The seeds give off a lemony odor but none of that comes across in the taste: It will never be the main player, as I mentioned more the wall flower, subtle yet supportive. =)

  11. March 23, 2009 at 10:13 AM

    Don’t you just LOVE cochinita pibil? Growing up in a Mexican household and being Mexican myself, that was always one of my favorite dishes. Achiote and Annato are so delicious, but I also love them for their highly aesthetically pleasing color. It’s one of those things that makes you marvel at nature’s paint brush…

    I am so jealous of your experience in Merida! I would kill to go take one of those courses and have made it a goal of mine to do so in the future when I live back on the US side of the pond. 🙂

  12. oysterculture
    March 23, 2009 at 11:16 AM

    Cochinita Pibil is awesome. I had not had anything like it, and cooking in the pib was amazing. When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, we had a big party at my uncle’s in Iowa, he was a farmer, and it a a pig roast – they must have fed 100 people, and tha’s what it reminded me of. The flavor was incredible with the yummy smokiness and it was so tender.

    The class was great, and highly recommend it, I want to do it again. It was a bit of a Greek tragedy for me. I had a bout of Montezuma’s revenge – we had horchata the day before at Chichzen Itza (and I totally forgot about watching out for the ice) and while I was not sick, it felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach, and I had no appetite whatsoever. I took a cooking class like this, and while everything looked and smelled delicious, I just did not have a strong desire to eat, it was not until I got home that I could truely appreciate this wonderful food.

  13. March 23, 2009 at 11:57 AM

    Once again, great info! I’ve used achiote, but I’ve never ground annato seeds. I’ll definitely go that route next time.

  14. March 24, 2009 at 2:46 PM

    Hi oysterculture,

    I just gave you the sisterhood award for your incredible blog. I look forward to reading every post you write!

    Here’s the link:


  15. oysterculture
    March 24, 2009 at 4:13 PM

    oh my goodness – thanks so much!

  16. foodgal
    March 30, 2009 at 9:06 PM

    The pork dish looks like pure comfort food. And how interesting about the allergic reactions to annato. Thanks for such great information on a lesser known ingredient.

  17. oysterculture
    March 30, 2009 at 9:27 PM

    It was love at first taste with this dish – I highly recommend it. I had not heard of it prior to my trip to Merida, but now that I know of it, I see it pop up in so many Mexican restaurants.

  18. April 1, 2009 at 11:13 PM

    I’ve been wanting to respond to your posts for quite sometime, but I didn’t have a wordpress account either. I finally gave in and made one =)

    I’ve been wanting to try this this dish for a while. Have you seen the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico? Puerco Pibil is a featured dish in that movie that Johnny Depp’s character loves to eat. There’s even a pretty neat recipe in the DVD features on how to make it too.

  19. oysterculture
    April 1, 2009 at 11:22 PM

    Thanks so much for taking the time to get a wordpress account. =) You will love the recipe – it is wonderful, one of my favorites. I have seen that movie with Johnny Depp, but I confess I not focused on the food – I shall have to watch it again. Thanks for the heads up on the movie tip. Please when you make it, let me know what you think.

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