Many people have never heard of annatto, also called achiote. The closest most of us in North America have come to this tiny seed that grows in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean is cheddar cheese. Annatto is used to color the naturally white cheddar a pleasant shade of orange. Stunning new research shows that this often overlooked spice from the rainforest is very good for us. For centuries, folk healers have used annatto to treat infections topically and orally. Some cultures consider it a digestive aid and a heartburn calmer.
Annatto/achiote is full of the FoodTrients vitamin C, vitamin E, and carotenoids, as well as vitamins B2 and B3 and helpful phytochemicals. Other compounds in annatto are antimicrobial. According to new studies that have looked into the molecular structure of vitamin E, the form of vitamin E available in annatto (tocotrienol) is a strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and can lower cholesterol. Vitamin E is integral to skin, hair, and nail health. A company called American River Nutrition (americanrivernutrition.com) extracts this superlative form of vitamin E from annatto seeds and sells it as a nutraceutical. Instead of taking an annatto/achiote supplement, you can just cook with it.
Achiote seeds grow inside inedible, spiky, heart-shaped, fruit pods. You can buy powdered annatto or achiote seeds at Mellissas.com. I prefer working with achiote seeds because I know they haven’t been adulterated with other powders or flavors. The best way for home cooks to extract the flavors and nutrients from the seeds is to simmer them in oil or infuse them in vinegar. The goodness and flavor of the achiote will then be transferred to the oil or vinegar.
I use neutral-tasting oil like corn or canola or grapeseed, which won’t fight the taste of the seeds. Olive oil isn’t a good choice. Coconut oil can work really well especially if you’re planning on making a Brazilian dish. Start with 1 teaspoon of achiote seeds and add ½ cup of coconut oil to a saucepan. Simmer the seeds in the oil over medium heat for 5–7 minutes. Swirl the pan a few times while cooking to keep the seeds evenly distributed. The oil will turn a beautiful orange color and the seeds will sizzle and turn very dark brown. Once all the seeds have turned dark, remove them from the heat. Cool the oil and strain out the solids. Now it’s ready to be used.
To infuse vinegar, place a teaspoon of seeds in a 2-cup container and cover with ¼ cup of white vinegar. You can also use rice vinegar or apple-cider vinegar. Microwave the mixture for 1 minute, then let stand for 20 minutes. Strain the solids out and use the infused vinegar to add flavor when slowly roasting pulled pork with onions. To make a salad dressing with it, combine the vinegar with 1 teaspoon of honey and 2 tablespoons of canola oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Brazilians use annatto (they call it urucum) in moquecas—fish stews made with tomatoes, yucca, and sometimes coconut milk. Mexicans use achiote with fish, beef, and especially pork. Spaniards use it in rice dishes and to lend color to the skin of young pigs while roasting. Filipinos use atsuete-infused oil to pan-fry rice noodles. Try sautéeing ground beef and onions in achiote oil when you’re making taco filling. When preparing rice dishes, pan-fry the rice in achiote oil before simmering with tomatoes and olives to make a very authentic Spanish rice. Sear chicken breasts in achiote oil before sprinkling them with salt and paprika and then finish them in the oven for a colorful, flavorful take on an old standby.