What the Heck Do I Do with Annatto?

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Welcome to the second edition of "What the Heck Do I Do with That?"—an occasional foray into the less-familiar nooks and crannies of the spice rack, ethnic food specialty store or farmers' market. Last time, we looked at nigella seeds, which are most commonly associated with South Asian cuisines. This time we'll head to Latin America for another seed used as a spice, annatto.

What is it?

If you're a label reader, you may recognize annatto as one of the ingredients frequently found in a brick of cheddar—it's a natural coloring that gives cheese and other foods a bright orange hue. It comes from the Bixa orellana, a tropical plant commonly known as achiote or lipstick tree (from one of its uses). The ground seeds are a common spice in Mexican, Caribbean and Filipino dishes. The seeds are a brick-red color, about five millimeters long, and shaped like little puppy teeth.

Where does it come from?

Annatto is native to tropical regions in Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. It was used by ancient Mayans as a body paint, and by Aztecs to deepen the color of their chocolate drink, according to the Handbook of Spices, Seasonings and Flavorings by Susheela Raghavan.

What does it taste like?

I chewed on a whole seed, which had a mild flavor that I could best describe as claylike. Others say it's slightly sweet and peppery, musky, or has a flowery scent. In Mexican Everyday, Chicago chef Rick Bayless calls achiote paste (a mixture of annatto seeds and other spices) "a flavor that tastes as though it's been unchanged since pre-Columbian times."

So, what the heck do I do with it?

First off, let me tell you what not to do with it: don't buy whole annatto seeds unless you have a diamond cutter, or at least a high-powered spice grinder. I was intending to make Bayless's recipe for Grilled Fish in Tangy Yucatecan Achiote with Green Beans and Roasted Tomato Salsa. I somehow didn't read the part where he recommends buying pre-ground achiote from a Latino grocer or website because the seeds are so hard to grind. I had a packet of whole seeds, which the label instructed could be ground with a mortar and pestle. Ha! After a few minutes of pestling the seeds with all my might (which, admittedly, is not formidable), they were frustratingly intact save for a red-orange stain in the bowl. I enlisted my spouse's physical-labor-enhanced forearms, but his result wasn't much better. I don't have a spice grinder, so I tried my mini–food processor; the seeds just ricocheted around like pebbles in a vacuum cleaner. I tried soaking them in hot water for two hours, on a suggestion I found online. All I had to show for it was a stained mini-processor and some moistened but otherwise unperturbed seeds. Finally, I just left the seeds in oil overnight (by this time I had given up and made something else for dinner), then blended the infused oil with the other ingredients in the recipe the next evening. The dish came out well, though I don't know if it would have tasted any different without the tinted oil.

Learn from my tribulations and buy pre-ground achiote. Then make cochinita pibil, a spicy pulled pork from the Yucatán. Or look for the Goya brand spice blend called Sazon con culantro y achiote to make classic Puerto Rican arroz con pollo. Or try Filipino-style tamales—the Tagalog word for annatto is atsuete—made with rice instead of corn.

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