Annatto is mainly used for its reddish-orange color and distinct peppery, sweet, nutty taste and aroma. This article presents substitutes that are accessible and achieve similar culinary effects as annatto seeds.
Saffron is the best similar substitute for annatto seeds. It has a mild taste, like annatto, and imparts a bright red to orange hue to the food or dish. But since it is expensive, you may prefer cheaper alternatives like safflower, paprika, and turmeric.
Now, let’s talk about each in more detail.
The stigmas of autumn crocus flowers are hand-picked and processed to make saffron. This spice’s high demand yet restricted and challenging production makes it a luxurious culinary treat. However, that doesn’t stop many from putting saffron in dishes like paella or bouillabaisse.
Among hundreds of spices, saffron makes the best substitute for annatto seeds. They both have sweet, mild flavors, although saffron also contributes some floral, earthy notes. They also impart reddish to orange colors to the dish.
Moreover, those saffron flavors are already intense, even with a few threads or teaspoons of the spice. Thus, you need much less saffron to substitute the annatto with; for instance, if you need 1 tablespoon (7 g) of annatto, 1 teaspoon (2.4 g) or a few threads of saffron is sufficient.
The downside to saffron is its price. If you check the best-selling saffron, Zaran Saffron (available on Amazon), a 28-gram (0.062 lb) pack can be costly. This is because their saffron is authentic and lab-tested for flavor, color, and aroma.
But since you need only a few threads or teaspoons, you’d still have a lot of saffron left. You can use that for other delicious dishes.
Safflower is similar to saffron, commonly used as its dupe and even dubbed as “poor man’s saffron.” It is often used to make oil, but the petals can be turned into spice or seasoning, which can substitute for annatto.
Safflower has a similar flavor profile to saffron – sweet and floral but much milder. There’s also some nuttiness to the safflower’s aroma. These qualities, along with its bright coloring, make it a fantastic 1:1 substitute for annatto.
These Safflower Petals from Nature Tea (available on Amazon) are excellent if you need a product recommendation. They are the natural, GMO-free, dried loose petals of actual safflowers and are available in 1, 2, 4, and 8 oz packs (0.03, 0.07, 0.14, and 0.28 g).
3. Paprika and Turmeric
Most of us won’t have either saffron or safflower in our spice cabinets. That’s alright because we have a commonly available yet effective annatto substitute: the combination of paprika and turmeric.
Turmeric tastes earthy, spicy, and slightly bitter, while paprika’s flavors are peppery with some sweetness or smokiness. Also, paprika provides a bright red color usually sought from our original spice. Combining the two, more or less, achieves the effect.
To replace one tablespoon of annatto seeds, combine ½ tablespoon (2.4 g) of turmeric with ½ tablespoon (2.4 g) of paprika. Follow the substitution ratio for other applications.
You can also substitute annatto with either paprika or turmeric only. If you use paprika, expect a spicy-sweet flavor. Meanwhile, turmeric has a more earthy, pungent taste.
4. Red Food Coloring
If you’re using annatto seeds simply for coloring your food, you can easily replace them with food coloring. A few drops of red food coloring would do the trick, but if you want something more orange, you can add a few drops of orange or yellow food coloring.
The downside to food coloring is the lack of taste and aroma. But that can also be an upside – you can focus on the dish’s other flavors instead. You can also be creative in compensating for the annatto’s flavors.
You can also pair food coloring with other annatto seed substitutes! For instance, if you used turmeric or ginger powder, adding a drop of food coloring could give the dish a reddish to orange color.
5. Ground Cumin
Another readily-available spice you can substitute annatto with is ground cumin. Cumin has a warm, earthy, nutty, and citrusy taste. It might not sound close to annatto, but it works well enough because of its nuttiness and earthiness.
Moreover, cumin has more heat than annatto. Thus, when using it as a substitute, add ½ teaspoon (0.79 g) less than per tablespoon (4.7 g) of annatto needed to account for that extra spice.
The colors would also differ, as ground cumin leans more toward yellow shades. Thus, if you were aiming for a vibrant red to orange color on your dish, you might have to add other substances, like food coloring, paprika, or other spices.
6. Ginger Powder
Ginger is often confused for turmeric because they look alike and color foods with yellow hues. But they are much different, especially in terms of flavor. While turmeric is bitter and earthy, ginger has a subtle sweetness amidst its other spicy, peppery flavors.
Those flavors are close to annatto’s, just missing the nuttiness, and they also come off as more pungent or intense. Thus, use much less ginger powder than the amount of annatto called for. Also, do not expect the colors to be the same unless you add food coloring or reddish spices.
Also, using ginger instead of ginger powder may not achieve the effect you were looking for – regular, sliced ginger hardly colors foods.
7. Red Bell Pepper Powder
Despite the “pepper” in the name, red bell peppers tend to have sweeter, fruitier, tangy flavors rather than peppery or spicy. Although often used fresh, they can exist as a powder, which you can use as an annatto substitute.
They can color the food in adequate amounts while maintaining subtle, mild flavors. Do not confuse them for powdered red pepper, though — that one has heat and won’t be as mild or unnoticeable as red bell pepper powder.
8. Beet Powder
Beet powder is a popular way of giving foods a bright, reddish color while keeping the flavors subtle and mild. However, if noticed, the flavors are very different from annatto, as beet is distinctly earthy.
Thus, consider that quality before using beet powder as an annatto replacement. But if you choose beet powder, use as little as possible – just enough to give the food color but minimize the earthy flavors.
9. Bijol Seasoning
Bijol seasoning is a popular spice mix that contains annatto, cumin, corn flour, and yellow and red food coloring. It imparts a bright red color to food, just like annatto.
Bijol seasoning is an excellent alternative to annatto, mainly because it contains annatto. But it can be flavorful, which contrasts the typically mild annatto. So, use this spice sparingly and appropriately.
10. Sazon Seasoning
Sazon is another Latin American spice mix that contains annatto. Besides that, it may also have the following:
- Black pepper
Because it contains annatto, sazon seasoning does an excellent job coloring food. However, the many other spices in the mix make this alternative much more flavorful than the usual plain annatto.
Thus, only use this to give red color to flavorful or savory dishes. Otherwise, it can significantly offset the dish’s original taste profile.
11. Hibiscus Powder
Although hibiscus powder is quite an uncommon ingredient, I won’t discount the possibility of you having some. If you do, they can make up for annatto in a pinch, but only if you use the latter for color.
That’s because hibiscus tastes quite different from annatto – it’s floral, tart, and fruity. The fewer you use, the milder and more subtle the flavor. But, like annatto, it gives the food a bright red color, albeit closer to a burgundy than orange.
What Spice Is Similar to Annatto?
A spice similar to annatto is saffron because, like annatto, saffron can give a dish a bright red color, even in minuscule amounts. Their flavors also feature some subtle sweetness. Other similar spices are safflower and paprika.
What Flavor Is Annatto Seed?
Annatto seed has a sweet, peppery flavor with earthy to nutty notes. The aroma is also similar to the taste. However, since annatto is used in minuscule amounts, these flavors and aromas often go mild or unnoticeable in food.
Is Annatto and Paprika the Same?
Annatto and paprika are the same in that they have a mildly sweet, peppery flavor, although annatto has some earthiness or nuttiness to it. Moreover, they also impart red colors to the dish. However, it takes much less annatto to color food than paprika.
Where To Buy Annatto Seeds?
In many spice shops, you can buy annatto seeds, which may also be labeled achiote. It is also in grocery stores that sell foreign products, specifically Filipino, Mexican, Latin American, and Caribbean food items. You can also purchase it online.
If you need recommendations for annatto seeds, here are some top-selling ones:
- The Spice Way Annatto Seeds (available on Amazon). These annatto seeds are packed fresh and free of preservatives, additives, fillers, GMOs, and MSG. They also come in a resealable pouch.
- Marshall’s Creek Spices Annatto Ground (available on Amazon). Get this if you need ground annatto seeds or powdered annatto rather than whole ones. This product is all-natural; thus, free of MSG and fillers.
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