For a typical seasoning, it is unlikely not to find annatto seeds on your kitchen shelves. When your recipe calls for the dark red hue, coming out as yellow or orange, you better have them on your jar, or you will certainly end up with a pale-looking dish.
People have been using annatto seeds for many dishes: stews, soups, processed meats, spice rubs, smoked fish, and different types of packaged food. The coloring extract comes from the achiote fruit seeds with thick, spiky covers.
For the record, annatto seeds do not only work as coloring. Annatto seeds also work as seasoning, ingredients, and medicine, which has been hundreds of years of practice.
Now, all you want is that dash of red brick-colored extracts from annatto seeds, but it turns out that they have run out. Don’t worry. We have prepared a list of substitutes that you probably have in your kitchen.
Finding the Best Substitute for Annatto
Annatto seeds have an earthy, floral, peppery, and sometimes a bitter flavor. However, this flavor does not usually come out in small amounts, so expect that annatto seeds will not have much impact on the taste of your dishes.
If you want to look for a coloring additive that will replace annatto seeds, at least find one that does not go too far and try to interfere with the taste of your dish. Also, you want the coloring to go from yellow to orange.
Of course, it still depends on the dish you will cook. When substituting, always remember the level of coloring you need for your recipe. Hence, you can choose from these best annatto seed substitutes: ground cumin, paprika, saffron, hibiscus, and turmeric.
If you do not want any significant change in the taste of your dish but still want that red coloring appearance, the best to use is hibiscus. Albeit having a crimson hue, it can suffice as a substitute dye for your dish.
People use this colorant as a natural dye for different dishes and products. If there’s any flavor you can taste in your recipe, it may be hints of tang, green, earthy tones, and a fruity, fresh flavor on your tongue.
When using hibiscus in an annatto recipe, you can use the same amount as you would with annatto seeds. And you’ll be surprised your dish will taste the way you want.
Ground cumin is closely related to the taste of annatto seeds: earthy, peppery, and citrusy. However, cumin could be a bit spicier than annatto seeds.
Remember that ground cumin has fewer red tones and more yellow tones. So if your dish requires a bit yellowish color, go for ground cumin.
If your dish requires more red tone, use ½ teaspoon of cumin for one tablespoon of annatto seeds. But if it requires a yellow color tone, you can use a 1:1 ratio.
If you will cook curries or similar meals, you can substitute saffron for annatto seeds. Just a warning: this powder is pricey.
It can successfully turn your dish orange or yellow, and the color it makes turns food pretty appealing. What we love about saffron is it has a similar earthy, grassy taste that annatto seeds have. Only that it tastes a bit metal.
Because of the taste similarities, you can use half the amount of saffron as the usual amount of annatto seeds you use. If your recipe needs a teaspoon of achiote seeds, add ½ teaspoon of saffron.
If your recipe requires a bit of spiciness, go for paprika. Paprika is the closest substitute you can use for annatto seeds.
Paprika comes from different mild harvested chilis, dried, and ground to a fine powder. The taste depends on the chili type used, but some paprikas can be unspicy.
Paprika is available in varying levels of spiciness, and it depends on your preferred level. For one, it can be mild and sweet, while some versions can be intense and hot.
Using mild paprika, you can use the same amount for annatto seeds. But if you will use the spicy one, you have to watch out for the quantity you use.
If your recipe is anywhere in between rice, stews, and soups, you better use turmeric as an alternative to annatto seeds. It turns your dish bright or golden yellow.
Turmeric has a strong flavor profile: earthy, a bit bitter, peppery, with a bit sour taste. It not only goes for rice and soup dishes, but you can splash it on salads.
And because of the strong, earthy spice of turmeric, only use a half teaspoon of turmeric for every one teaspoon of annatto seeds. So if you do not like it to interfere with the taste of your dish, reduce the amount of turmeric, or you can also combine it with paprika.
You will not first think of beet as a substitute for annatto seeds. But when you use it in your annatto seed-colored recipes, you’ll be surprised by its vibrant hue.
As a colorant, it has ruby red color tones in pinkish shades, and would surely add vibrance to your dish. As an ingredient, you’d be surprised by its earthy sweet taste.
While it can amplify your dish with its sweetness, you’d love how it won’t clash with its supposed flavor. Add it to your post-workout meal as it is a good source of nitrates that aid in smooth blood flow and boost vascular function. [Source]
Safflower colors your dishes closely to how annatto seeds would. It brings a yellowish-orange hue to your cuisine without altering the recipe flavor.
It has a very mild flavor and is almost unnoticeable but has a rich, sweet aroma. Most people use it as a natural dye, and you’ll notice that it is identical to annatto seeds.
Safflower fits your stews and soups. You will have no problem using it with the same amount used for annatto seeds.
Nutmeg can color your recipes closer to how annatto seeds do. You can use it as a substitute for annatto seeds as it contains bright crimson red arils.
Nutmeg can add a bit of color to your porridges, soups, or stews made with annatto seeds. It has nutty sweetness with earthy notes. When ground, nutmeg releases aromatic warmth with a hint of cloves.
When you start using nutmeg for annatto seeds, you’ll surely prefer the aromatic warmth of nutmeg. However, be careful not to put too much, or you may not be able to eat your dish.
Red Bell Pepper Powder
The matured or ripened green bell pepper has a bright red hue, use it if you do not have annatto seeds. These bell peppers have mild, smoky, earthy sweetness, and we love adding them to our dish if we want it to be spicier.
Because of its smokiness, it can alter the taste of your dish. But if you love a bit of spice, red bell pepper is not hot anyway; you would love how the flavor comes to your recipe.
Taste your red bell pepper powder first before using it. You want to make sure it doesn’t make any significant taste difference in your dish.
Ginger has a natural yellow color and might work as an annatto substitute for stews, salads, dressings, or sauces. However, ginger powder can make significant changes to your dish.
It has a strong flavor profile with a warm, spicy, citrusy, lemony taste and a few peppery notes. This flavor can be strong and sharp, depending on how you use it in your dish.
If you love the taste of ginger, use it as much as you want to.
Be it for salads, dressings, soups, or stews, you would love to stock hemp seeds up in your kitchen. Hemp seeds offer many nutritional benefits, and there are just too many ways you can consume them. [Source]
Hemp seeds or hemp hearts have a light to dark brown hue that can brighten the color of your dish. You’d love its taste profile: nutty, earthy, and crunchy flavor accents. It contains pyrazines and pyrroline that make up nutty foods like coffee and dark chocolates.
And because of its strong earthy taste, you may use half the amount of annatto seeds you put in your dish.
Sazon Seasoning Mix
Sazon seasoning mix is a condiment of mixed spices, and it contains ground annatto seeds. You will find it in most Mexican or Latin shelves, and you would love the taste profile of this seasoning in your dish.
It consists of different spices such as cumin, garlic powder, cilantro, salt, oregano, saffron, black pepper, and ground annatto seeds. Surprisingly, it’s not so spicy, well, a bit spicy, but more savory, earthy, and cool. [Source]
If you love pulling off that Mexican vibe in your dish, use two tablespoons of Sazon mix.
If you can’t find any other substitute, get your food coloring. Mix a drop of yellow food coloring to a tablespoon of water to get that annatto seed color.
Or, you can mix it in a broth or juice since food coloring doesn’t sit quite well in oil. So if you want to utilize the color you are aiming for, use a non-oil-based liquid for your food coloring.
It doesn’t have flavor, so it won’t affect the taste of your dish. But if you can find natural food coloring, that is better!
Other forms of annatto seeds
There are other forms of annatto seeds that you can use as colorants: paste, oil, and powder.
Annatto paste is a processed product of annatto seeds combined with a few spices and seasonings until it turns into a paste. You can compare it to Sazon mix, but the difference lies in the ingredients. You would use Sazon mix mainly to enhance the flavor, not to add color.
It contains coriander seeds, black peppercorns, dried oregano, cumin seeds, cloves, and garlic. Also, Sazon has cilantro, while annatto paste needs cloves, separating their flavor profiles.
Annatto oil is the product of seeping the colorant of annatto seeds into overheated oil. The process undergoes three to five minutes until the oil takes the red brick color of annatto seeds.
The purest form of annatto seeds is in powder form. You only need a grinder, a spice mill, or a mortar and pestle to grind annatto seeds to a fine powder and strain it before using it as an ingredient.