How To Use Atsuete

These reddish seeds are an important ingredient in some of our favorite dishes.

The Ilocos empanada, the kwek-kwek, the golden java rice with your chicken barbecue, and even the kare kare are just four kinds of food that just won’t be the same without its signature orange colors. 

It’s all thanks to atsuete. 

Also known as annatto seeds or achiote, the seeds are from the pods of the achiote tree. These brick red seeds are a popular and natural food coloring. It’s been nicknamed the “lipstick tree” since its seeds are traditionally for body paints and lipstick as well as for cooking.   

In cooking, it’s often used as a substitute as a coloring ingredient in place of saffron, although it’s more reddish than the bright golden yellow hue you can get from kasubha or real saffron threads. However, what makes atsuete a great substitute for saffron is that it’s basically flavorless. A little earthy but the main quality that makes it prized is that it’s a natural food color.  

You can find atsuete seeds in the supermarket in the same section as the spices are located. It comes in two forms:

  • as a powder
  • as dried seeds

The powdered version is easy to use. Just follow the instructions on the packet, which is usually to dissolve the powder in cold or room temperature water before adding to the pot. It’s common to see it mixed with cornstarch which will thicken liquids into sauces easily.  

This adobong manok na pula recipe is brick red from the natural food coloring of annatto or atsuete seeds.
Photo by Roselle Miranda

While the powder is super convenient, it’s not always the right ingredient to use, especially when it’s mixed with other ingredients that are not desired. You can use the seeds instead. However, you just need the coloring it provides since the seeds are inedible (The seeds are very hard). There are two ways you can extract the color from atsuete seeds: in water or in oil. 

What’s interesting about atsuete seeds is that it has both water-soluble and oil-soluble pigments. All this means is that you can use water as well as oil to extract the red-orange color. You can then use the water or oil in your dish as needed. 

Here’s How to Extract Color From Atsuete

  1. To extract the color from the seeds in water, simply soak atsuete seeds in water. Strain the seeds and any solids from the water then use as directed in the recipe. 
  2. To extract the color from the seeds into oil or to make annatto oil, heat atsuete seeds in vegetable oil in a small saucepan over low heat. Let seeds simmer slightly in the oil then remove from the heat. Strain and use as directed.    

A great ratio to use is 1/4 cup per 1/2 cup water or oil. You do not have to soak it for very long or heat up the oil very much. Just enough that the seeds will release their color into the water and oil. Just note that the infused water will look less vibrant than the infused oil. For dishes that need a stronger color, use the oil method for a bright yellow hue. Store any leftover oil, cooled, in jars, and refrigerated for up to two weeks.  


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