Annatto oil is produced by combining seeds from the achiote tree with oil. It is used in cooking to provide a yellowish-orange color to food like soups, sauces, vegetables, and meat. Annatto oil is commonly added in small amounts so that there is enough to color the food without providing any discernible flavor. When combined with food in larger quantities, the ingredients take on a peppery taste with an earthy, slightly bitter undertone.
Annatto oil is not so common in the United States and many other Western countries. If you can't get your hands on any or you're simply looking for an alternative, then keep reading. We've pulled together a list of our favorite annatto substitutes that will allow you to finish any recipe without it.
What can I use to replace annatto oil?
To replace annatto oil in cooking we recommend using saffron, safflower, yellow and red food coloring, or a combination of turmeric and paprika. For a more authentic dish, you can also make your own by heating vegetable oil and annatto seed in a small pan on low heat for 5-10 minutes.
Saffron is an exotic spice that is rare and well known for being one of the most expensive ingredients you can buy. However, a little goes a long way so the price isn't as bad as first imagined. Red saffron threads give food like risotto, curries, and French bouillabaisse an alluring golden hue. One to three threads of saffron will also transform the appearance of cakes and puddings.
If you decide to use saffron as a replacement for annatto then keep in mind that it adds a musky, sweet, and earthy flavor to dishes. For many recipes that call for annatto, this subtle change in flavor will make a delicious addition.
Use one to three saffron threads to add color and flavor to savory and sweet dishes.
The use of safflower dates back almost 4000 years and is an excellent spice for adding a sweet wildflower aroma to recipes. It is also known as false saffron or Mexican saffron as the two spices are quite similar in appearance.
If you're looking to add a delicious yellow shade to your food, then safflower is a great option. It is cheaper to buy than saffron and its flavor is barely detectable, a lot like annatto. If enough of the spice is added, it will provide a subtle taste of tobacco and chocolate, but these notes are barely detectable for most people.
Safflower doesn't have the same power to color food as saffron does, so you will need to add more to get a similar result. Use two teaspoons of saffron petals in place of one teaspoon of annatto.
3. Food coloring
For recipes where you don't want to add extra flavor or aroma, food coloring is your best option for replacing annatto. To achieve a similar result, use two drops of yellow and one drop of red, combined with a tablespoon of water. Instead of water, you could also use stock, juice, or any other liquid that isn't oil-based. Most food coloring doesn't mix well with oil, so you won't be able to use this when you’re mixing the colors.
There is a range of different food colors on the market. If you aren't a fan of using artificial ingredients, keep in mind there are natural options available.
4. Turmeric + Paprika
If you are making a savory dish such as paella or chicken that's calling out for flavor, then you’ll find a combination of turmeric and paprika is a good option. Turmeric adds a vibrant yellow shade to food along with a peppery, earthy flavor; paprika brings an earthy red shade to food combined with a smoky, sweet flavor.
To replace one teaspoon of annatto oil in your next recipe, use a half teaspoon of turmeric and half a teaspoon of paprika.
5. Make your own
Got no annatto oil in the pantry? If you can source a bag of annatto seeds from your local spice store, an Asian grocer, or a Latin grocer then you can make your own in minutes. Here's how it's done.
Makes: 2 cups.
- 1 cup annatto seeds
- 2 cups vegetable oil
- Add the annatto seeds and oil to a small saucepan and frequently stir on medium heat until the oil starts to sizzle.
- Reduce the temperature to a low heat and simmer until the oil turns reddish-orange. This should take less than 10 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool before straining the mixture and discarding the seeds. Pour the oil into a suitable bottle or jar with a sealable lid and store in the pantry for up to two months.
Summary of annatto substitutes
|Saffron||1-3 threads||Adds musky, sweet, and earthy flavor|
|Safflower||2 teaspoons||No added flavor if used sparingly|
|Food coloring||2 drops red, 1 drop yellow, 1 tbsp water||Offers no extra flavor or aroma|
|Turmeric & Paprika||½ tsp of each||Vibrant color and pungent flavor|
|Annatto seeds cooked with oil||As required||Best option if the seeds are available|
Fast facts about annatto
- Annatto is also known as achiote, atsuwete, roucou, or achuete.
- It is used my manufacturers to color American cheese, ice cream, smoked fish, and many other everyday foods.
- The pods grow on a small shrub at the end of its woody stems. They are in season from spring until early fall.
- They were brought to the Philippines in the 16th century by the Spanish. [source]
- Annatto seeds contain high levels of carotenoids which provide their vibrant color and high levels of antioxidants.
- The seeds can be ground and combined with other common spices to make a paste for marinating fish and meat.
- The achiote shrub thrives in tropical climates and is often used for cooking in the Caribbean, Latin America, India, Kenya, and the Philippines.
Annatto oil is used in cooking for adding eye-catching color to food. If you don't have any then you can replace it with saffron, safflower, food coloring, or a combination of turmeric and paprika. For a more authentic flavor, you can make your own oil by cooking annatto seeds and vegetable oil for about 10 minutes and then straining the liquid.
What are you looking to use an anatto substitute for in your cooking? Please let us know in the comments below.