Pop quiz: What spice is used in Latin American rice dishes, English cheese manufacturing, and Vietnamese braises? Okay, the title of the post gives this one away. But let's talk about annato for a minute, the great understudy of the spice world.
Annato seeds are harvested from a small spiky fruit that likely originated in Brazil. Small, angular, and pebble-like, the seeds are full of water- and fat-soluble pigments that were used for everything from paint to medicine to clothing dye. Food preparation probably came later, though some suspect the seeds early Aztec hot chocolate drinks. When the Spanish arrived, and brought their saffron- and paprika-hued rice dishes with them, annato became the homegrown response to a new appetite for brightly spiced rice dishes across Latin America and the Caribbean. If you've ever enjoyed a plate of arroz con gandules or a bowl of "soupy rice" with a rich yellow hue, you can almost certainly thank annato.
While you're at it, thank it for a lot more, like the orange color of your Velveeta and American singles. Ever wonder why processed cheddar looks a lot more orange than "real" cheddar? Going back as early as the 16th century, cheddar makers in Gloucestershire dyed their milk with annato to fool consumers into thinking they were getting a better cheese. The superior cheddars of the region owed a slight orange hue to carotenoid-rich grasses in cattle pastures, so orange became a marker for quality cheese, which sketchy creameries took advantage of with a sprinkle of annato into their lower quality milk. The orange = quality marker is an artifact that's lasted till today, even if it's no longer accurate in the slightest. The irony is that annato-colored cheeses are usually way more orange than the superior cheeses they're trying to imitate.
But annato is more than a pretty orange smile or a dirty cheese trick. Beneath its glow lie subtle flavors that add layers of spice to grains, legumes, meat, and savory sauces. Its earthy, slightly peppery taste pairs famously with the mild flavors of rice, poultry, onion, and bay. Sure, annato's mild—okay, it makes turmeric taste loud by comparison—but the subtle fragrance it imparts is irreplaceable.
How to Use Annato
One of the tricks to using spices well is knowing how to create layers of flavor in a dish. It couldn't be easier with annato. Blend it into a paste with herbs, spices, onion, garlic, and citrus to rub into pork. The paste is a marinade that becomes a sauce, adding flavor at all stages of the cooking process.
An easier, more versatile trick is to make annato-infused oil, also called achiote oil, which can be used for pan frying, as the oil base for vegetable sweats, or as a finishing oil on soups. Steep some annato—and some friendly spices if you like (I'm partial to bay and dried chile)—in hot oil for a few minutes, strain, and jar. You've now got a fragrant red-orange oil to color and flavor all sorts of Latin American and Caribbean rice dishes, stews, and braises. The oil forms a mild base to build layers of flavor with browned meat, onion, garlic, fresh chile, citrus, cumin, and tomato.
This is flexible stuff which will keep at full potency for months (best in the fridge): instant flavor always on hand. For a more annato-forward flavor, use neutral canola or corn oil, but the peppery vibe of olive oil takes nicely to an annato steeping as well.
Don't stop with flavors from the Western Hemisphere. In the Philippines, Vietnam, and other parts of South East Asia, annato rounds out lemongrass, star anise, and coconut in stews and curries. Add some to your next braise, or just start your curry out with a swirl of homemade annato oil. You can find annato seeds at specialty spice shops and on the internet, but they're also quite common in the Hispanic sections of larger grocery stores.