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Annatto pods grow at the ends of woody stems on a small shrub-like plant. Before the seed pods form, the plant is covered in white, five-petaled flowers. The seed pods look like fuzzy strawberries, growing in clusters of a dozen or more. Annatto pods are heart-shaped and are bright red to a reddish-brown when mature. Once the pods are fully mature, they split open to reveal tiny, 5 millimeters long, triangular brick red seeds. The seeds are pungent, and have a slightly peppery flavor with a hint of nutmeg. They are covered with a slightly waxy, clay-like substance that produces a bright yellow or orange stain.
Annatto seeds are available in the spring and through the early fall months.
Annatto, is a spice that comes from a plant also known as Achiote in Mexico or Atsuwete in the Philippines. Botanically, the tree is known as Bixa orellana. Annatto is most commonly known as a natural food colorant used to give cheddar cheese its orange tint. The bright dye from the seeds was once used by the ancient Mayans as war paint, which may be where the nickname ‘lipstick plant’ came from. While the seeds are inedible, they are used to impart flavor and color to dishes around the world.
Annatto seeds provide a moderate amount of protein, some calcium and is a good source of iron. The bright color of Annatto seeds indicate high levels of carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants that help fight cell damage. The two primary carotenoids, and sources of color in the Annatto seeds, are bixin and norbixin. More bixin can mean a more yellow Annatto, while more norbixin can mean a more orange-red hued Annatto. Some people who are sensitive to artificial dyes may also be sensitive to the effects of Annatto.
Annatto seeds are often used to make achiote oil, which is used in rice dishes and stews. The seeds are steeped in oil as it is heated over the stove for a few minutes at a medium temperature. The seeds will shed their reddish-orange coating, infusing the oil with its color and flavor. Once the seeds have been discarded, the result is an oil with an orangey-yellow hue and tangy flavor. Annatto seeds can also be ground (using a high-powered spice grinder) and blended with black pepper, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, salt and sour orange juice to make achiote paste. This can be used as a marinade or rub for meats and fish. Seeds can be saved for up to six months when kept in an airtight container.
Annatto is used commercially for coloring food like rice, desserts, butter, cheese and fabric. It was used by the ancient Aztecs to flavor and intensify the color of their chocolate. A secondary property of Annatto is its preservative qualities, which have been used for centuries to keep food from spoiling.
Annatto is native to the tropical regions of Mexico, Central and South America, as well as parts of the Caribbean. The name Achiote comes from the ancient Nahuatl word achiotl, which the ancient Mexicans used to describe the plant. Spanish mercenaries discovered the plant in South America after plundering Peru and traveling down the Amazon in search of the big currency spice, cinnamon. The Spanish then brought the plant to the Philippines in the 16th or 17th century, where it quickly became a popular spice and coloring agent for local cuisine. Outside of the plant’s native range, Annatto or Achiote seeds are more commonly found packaged in Asian or Latin markets.