What is achiote, what does it taste like, and how is it used?

An indispensable ingredient, achiote is a natural pigment widely used in the food and cosmetics industry. Find out more about this plant native to the Americas.

What is achiote, what does it taste like, and how is it used?
Achote tree. Image by Jabea Tongo Etonde from Pixabay

The achiote we know and use for seasoning and marinating is generally found in grain, powder, oil, and paste form, extracted from the bright orange seeds of the inedible, thorny fruit of the achiote, a shrub between two and six meters high that belongs to the Bixaceae family. It grows in southern Mexico, mainly in Yucatan and Campeche, but is also cultivated in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, as it adapts very well to different types of climates and soils. Its consumption is common in Mexican, Caribbean, Latin American, and Philippine gastronomy.

The scientific name of achiote is Bixaorellana in honor of the Spanish explorer Francisco Orellana (1511-1546). The Mayas used achiote as a spice, currency, and colorant to dye their skin in some of their religious rites. After the discovery of America, it was taken to the Asian continent and its use spread to Europe and other countries. Currently, Mexico is the main producer of achiote. Achiote is the Spanish spelling of the Nahuatl word achiotl.

For coloring

From its seeds is extracted a natural colorant whose main component is Bixin (dicarboxylic acid denorbixin) which is used to dye the body, textiles, and also for artistic paints. According to the World Health Organization, its toxicity is null, so it is also used in the food industry as a condiment, spice, or natural colorant, for example, in butter, cheese, and other products. In Colombia, it is used to paint the dough of empanadas and tortillas, to color overflowing preparations, or simply to decorate dishes. It is also used to dye soaps, cosmetics, and varnishes, as well as to dye silk and cotton, and to decorate ceramics.

In the kitchen

Achiote brings a light smoky and somewhat bitter aroma and flavor to dishes, and its color tends to be intense red to bright orange. In Mexican cuisine, the most popular dish prepared with this spice is cochinita pibil, but it can also be used to prepare different types of meat, fish, poultry, or even to give color and flavor to the rice and many other dishes. It can also be combined with other spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and pepper, among others; "the variety of products with which it can be combined is immense". Other dishes prepared with achiote are beef enchilada, tamales, red rice with achiote, and chicken with achiote. And it is essential for the preparation of chorizos, sausages, and pickles.

The achiote paste

The achiote paste is the most used way to prepare dishes in Mexico. When acquiring it, the first thing to observe is the color. It should be deep orange, have a smoky aroma, and be soft to the touch. Once the package is opened, it should be kept tightly closed in a bag or an airtight container, otherwise, it tends to dry out and begins to lose its color and aroma, well-closed it can be kept for up to a year. The paste used in Mexico for cooking is the result of the macerated spice produced from achiote seeds, which are washed to extract the color and aroma of the spice.

Nutritional values

Per 100 g of achiote 300 Kcal, 2 g Protein 2, 7 g Carbohydrates 7. It also contains phosphorus, calcium, iron, and zinc. Achiote is also known as the "saffron of the earth" or the "Latin saffron" because it paints most typical dishes.

Achiote petal.
Achiote flower. Image by Michelli Carmo from Pixabay

At present it is mainly used as a colorant for cosmetics, ceramics, dyeing, and cooking; it also gives color to dairy products, wool, sheepskins, feathers, ivory, and bone; it can be used as an insect repellent and as a chocolate additive. The pulp of the seeds is used in the tropics as a remedy for skin diseases such as leprosy. It is used to heal burns and not leave scars. From the branch is extracted a gum that is similar to gum in Arabic. The bark has strong fiber, suitable for making pitas.

Those who use traditional medicine and natural remedies to treat ailments and ailments consider achiote useful due to its diverse therapeutic properties: astringent, emollient, antioxidant, antibacterial, expectorant and diuretic. Its fruit and seeds are used in infusions to control headaches and vomiting; with its leaves, either fresh or dried, infusions are prepared to treat prostatitis and make vaginal washes and treat other conditions. Some people use the pulp of its fruit to treat burns and blisters.

In the United States, it is also used in ice cream, bakery products, and edible oils. In Latin America it is used as a condiment obtained by frying the seed in fat, thus coloring rice, sauces, stews, etc. If the international market is taken into account, especially that of countries with a highly developed dairy industry, where achiote is widely used in the manufacture of dairy products, the prospects are quite satisfactory.

Four varieties are known: the Indian variety, which is a little pointed, produces white and green flowers; the Peruvian variety has a thick heart shape, is large and flat seeded, with pink flowers and red fruit; the Jamaican variety has red flowers and dehiscent fruit; the Yucatecan Creole variety has small orange or green fruit. The tree reaches commercial production after three years and with agronomic management, it can produce for up to 15 years. Achiote produces up to two tons of fruit per hectare and a yield of 120 kilograms (330 pounds) of paste can be obtained by traditional homemade methods, which is what is used in Tabasco to use it as a condiment.