Annatto – Flaming, Flavourless Offering of the Lipstick Tree

In this post:


“Annatto has no flavour at all, but carrot juice, of course, does. I am not sure how carrot juice will affect the flavour of the cheese but I think the colour gives it a perception of different flavours”.

-Robin Skailes of Cropwell Bishop Creamery


Introduction – how I discovered the achiote tree

Whilst wandering about in the Brazilian mata Atlântica we came upon some marmosets perching on a tree. Looking down we found the ground spattered with what looked a bit like spiky horse chestnuts, but those that had split open looked to my myopic gaze a little as if they were spewing blood.

I discovered that the tree is an achiote tree (Biza Orellana), otherwise known as a lipstick tree, because the waxy coating of the seeds yields a bright red substance widely used as a dye.


what is annatto
marmosets playing above an achiote tree


Annatto as a dye

It’s used to dye fabric and paints (the Aztecs used it to make red ink for their manuscripts); and it’s also used to dye food.

In Brazil the fruit of this tree is known as urucu, and the substance derived from the seed coating is called annatto (sometimes spelt with only one n, or t), with other names being bijol.


where does annatto come from?
The seeds are covered in a red wax coating.


Culinary uses of annatto

In food it has a wide use in cheese – as Robin Scailes points out in the quote above – it has the advantage over carrot juice (another source of colouring for cheesemakers) because it has no flavour. Examples of cheeses featured on Saucy Dressings which use annatto are:

And it’s also used to colour chorizo and salami; and popcorn.

It’s also widely used in Latin American cooking – again for colouring – with chicken, suckling pig, and in a beef stew (caldo de olla).

And, because it’s flavourless, in some Latin American countries they combine it with other flavourful spices to get the best of all worlds – colour and taste. In Puerto Rico it’s combined with cumin, coriander seeds, salt and dried garlic to make sazón.

One of the most intriguing thoughts on all this is the effect of colour – even though annatto is tasteless, its hue gives a psychological perception of a flavour.


Where does the achiote tree grow

Brazil is the world’s largest producer of annatto, but it is grown throughout Latin America (it’s native to the continent), and now, increasingly in Africa.


The fruit of the achiote tree
The fruit of the achiote tree



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