What is Achiote Paste?! – A Complete Guide

Reading Time: 6 minutes


What is achiote paste

If you have enjoyed Yucatan pork and pollo asado at your local Mexican restaurants, you love the distinctive red colour that achiote paste provides. Known as recado Colorado, this Latin American seasoning is packed in many different flavours. It originated in the Yucatán- southeastern region of Mexico. It is used as a natural red food colouring that comes from the seeds of the Bixa Orellana shrub. Traditionally used as a seasoning in central and South American dishes. It is best rubbed on seafood, poultry and other meats, imparting a mild flavour and deep-red colour. In this guide, you will learn what is achiote paste and its best substitutes.

What Is Achiote Paste?

Achiote paste or recado Rojo is a flavorful mix of achiote or annatto seeds, garlic, vinegar, and peppery spices like cumin, clove, oregano, and cinnamon. You can also add chillies and a mix of seasonings too, but they are optional. Unlike smoky chipotle paste, it has a milder flavour thanks to the array of herbs and spices to make this blend. 

Grind annatto seeds, spices, and herbs to form a thick paste and add vinegar. The annatto seeds produce a red-orange colour when ground and can be used in a variety of savoury and sweet dishes. Achiote powder is a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Annatto seeds have a peppery flavour with earthy undertones and can be used as food colour or spice.

 This vibrant-coloured paste is best used as a marinade or a rub for meats. It is widely used in Mexican dishes and essential to certain Latin American dishes such as cochinita pibil.

What flavours work with achiote?

Achiote imparts a peppery and earthy flavour with some bitterness. It has no discernable flavour when you use it in a small amount. It can be used as a food colourant and create great flavours and deep-red colours when complemented with other ingredients. The citrus acid of this spice complement the poblanos and smoked onion when used for hamburgers. 

When you use it as a finishing oil, it imparts a smoky flavour. It works well in stew recipes and can be a great addition to South Asian dishes that call spices. For instance, if you are a fan of Indian mash-ups and spicy Indian dishes like Chicken Tikka, using achiote paste in spice mix helps you get the red colour without making it too spicy.

It has a mild earthy flavour, so it does not interfere with the other spices. Use it as a dry spice rub for grilled meat or in a marinade. You can also mix achiote with oil to brush onto seafood.

What textures work with achiote?

Its slightly peppery and earthy taste goes well with chewy, firm, and crunchy textures. It pairs well with the flavours of rice, onions and poultry.

What textures work with achiote

Varieties of achiote

The common forms of achiote are powder form, achiote paste, and achiote oil. Other varieties of achiote include achiote oil and liquid solution.

Achiote paste

Made from ground annatto seeds or achiote, spices and herbs, this spice has a subtle flavour that has been described as earthy, sweet and nutty with a peppery aroma. 

Native to American tropical areas, it is commonly used in South American, Mexican, Filipino and Central American cooking. You can keep it stored in an air-tight jar in the refrigerator for a few months.

Powder form:

Its powder form can turn your food shades of orange, deep-red and yellow depending on the ingredients and cooking method. In fact, it is used to colour cheddar cheese and butter. When mixed with other spices and herbs, it turns into an achiote paste to marinate red meat, poultry and fish. It gives a smoky flavour to the meat. It can last up to three years when you store it in a dark, cool, dry place. 

Achiote oil:

Only two ingredients are used to make achiote oil i.e. annatto seeds and oil. Annatto seeds are steeped in oil to make achiote oil. When you cook with or sauté in the lard, it adds flavour and colour to any savoury dish. It includes meat, rice, soup, fish, paella, and some yucca dishes.

What Does It Taste Like?

Achiote is a spice blend with a wide array of spices and herbs like annatto seeds, Mexican oregano, cumin, garlic, coriander seeds, cloves, bitter orange juice (secret weapon) and black pepper. So you will get authentic Mexican flavours. It is nutty and earthy with a bit of smokiness but doesn’t expect a lot of heat.

How to cook with it

You can cook with achiote paste in various ways. You can combine it with other ingredients and spices to create flavorful broth for cooking rice or add it directly to recipes. It can also be used for braising meat when blended with other spices and herbs. Achiote paste is used in various dishes like rice dishes, stews, ceviche, fish and shrimp marinades, chorizo, meat rubs, and pickled vegetables. 

This paste is also used in bagoong, a Philippine condiment made with shrimp paste and fermented fish. Achiote paste can be used to marinate the meat before cooking. The paste is also used with other spices and ingredients to create a flavorful broth for braising meat or cooking rice. 

This soft and bright ruby paste is quite strong and bitter, but if you mix it with vinegar and orange juice, it makes a marinade that imparts tangy flavours and turns your Mexican dish up a notch.

Substitutes for achiote

If you are not living in Latin and South America, chances are you might not find achiote paste at your local store or supermarket. Don’t worry; here are some great substitutes you can try.


If you are wondering what is achiote substitute that is similar to this ruby paste, then harissa is the answer. Made with chilies, garlic, caraway seeds and coriander, it can be replaced with achiote paste when you can’t find it at your local grocery store. 

You can make it at home with a handful of ingredients or purchase it at a well-stocked Middle-Eastern supermarket.

It is native to the Northwest African region of Maghreb and has an intense flavour that adds heat to many meat dishes. This hot chilli paste is used in North Africa and France. If spicy food is your thing, you can also use it as a spread for sandwiches.

 You can make it from different types of red chilli peppers. It imparts a smoky and rich flavour similar to cayenne pepper and paprika.

 Sambal Oelek

Another great substitute for achiote paste is sambal Oelek, the Indonesian aromatic condiment made from a variety of red chillies and some fresh and dry ground spices and herbs. It is pretty similar to Mexican salsa, but some types of sambals require local ingredients to make them. People usually like chilli paste, but it is a little saltier than chilli paste due to the high amount of salt in it. 

However, you can make this Indonesian chilli paste in several different ways. Some variations of sambal oelek contain lemon and onions. You can also make it with green or red chillies like harissa paste. Like achiote paste, it adds an extra layer of heat and smokiness when used for stir-fries and marinades. 

Paprika Paste

If you can’t get your hand on this flavourful paste, you can use the paprika paste as a substitute for achiote paste. Like achiote, paprika is a common spice used in Caribbean and South American cuisines. However, it may not result in the same flavour that you expect from achiote paste, but it will add bright red colour to any dish. 

Made from dried red peppers, this spicy condiment has sweat and mild flavour. When cooking with paprika paste, use it as a seasoning or to add red colour to dishes like soups and stews. When it is an alternative to achiote paste, we recommend you use a small amount first and then add more if needed.

Guajillo Chili Powder

Guajillo chilli powder is made from ground guajillo chillies and has a similar flavour to chipotle peppers. Hails from Mexico, this red powder is slightly spicy and fruity, with a hint of smokiness that adds depth to any dish. 

So it is perfect for people who love mild-flavoured food. Traditionally used in Mexican dishes, this spicy-sweet Guajillo chilli powder can be used for poultry and fish marinades. 

You can also make it at home by grinding dried guajillo chillies and combining the powder with other spices.

Tex Mex Paste

Achiote paste and Tex-Mex paste share similar ingredients. They both have similar flavours. Tex Mex paste is made with smoky ancho chilli peppers, cumin, fire-roasted tomatoes, garlic and other flavorful spices. 

It is quite popular in Southwestern dishes, works great as a meat rub, and is used in taco filings. When using it as a meat rub, mix it with olive oil and then apply this paste all over the meat. It will help to tenderize the meat and infuse it with more flavours.

We hope you have understood what achiote paste is. If you want to read about other flavorful pastes and spreadable sausages, read our guides about nduja and tamarind paste.

Andy Canter


Ever since I started cooking I’ve been fascinated by how different people’s techniques are and how they best utilise the ingredients around them. Even the person living next door will have their own unique way of frying an egg or cooking a salmon fillet.

This fascination led me on a journey across the globe to discover the countless practices and traditions the world of cooking has to offer. I thought you’d enjoy and find value in sharing that journey with me so I created Cooked Best!