Achiote is popular Latin American spice. It goes by the name of annatto in English. Achiote or annatto is mainly used to give a golden orangish color to the food. Achiote is a must have for things like refrito or sofrito, as well as for many soups, stews, and rice dishes. I also love to use it in marinades for both meat and seafood. Its flavor is very mild and is usually not noticeable in most dishes that use it.There are some exceptions to this and some traditional dishes, carne colarada or achiote braised meat for example, which use a lot of the spice and you can actually taste it in the dish.
In the US, achiote can be found in most Latin supermarkets, and even in some regular chain grocery stores. It’s usually in the section where they have the ground or dried chilies, or in the spice section. Achiote or annatto can be found whole, in small seeds, or in ground or powder form. For most of my recipes I use it ground or in powder. If you find it in seed form, the best option is to let the seeds cook over low temperature in abundant oil, lard or butter until the color is completely gone from the seeds and has infused into the grease – the remove the seeds and save the annatto oil or butter until ready to use. We call this esencia de achiote in Spanish. You can also prepare a spiced version of the oil or butter by adding garlic, cumin, etc.
When I first moved to the US it was really hard to find achiote or annatto, but it is a lot easier now. If you live in a city where you can’t find achiote, you use mild paprika as a replacement, more for the color it gives the food than for the flavor.