(Image credit: Apartment Therapy )
Our recipe for Cochinita Pibil called for one ingredient we'd never heard of before: achiote paste. This is a Mexican spice blend fairly specific to Yucatan and Oaxacan cuisine. We couldn't find the paste itself, but we did get an education in what it is, how it's made, and what it's used for! Do you ever cook with this spice?

Achiote is made from ground annatto seeds. On their own, these reddish-brown seeds have a woodsy aroma and a subtle earthy flavor. They also turn foods brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red depending on cooking method and other ingredients. In fact, it's used commercially to color things like butter, cheddar cheese, and even some cosmetics!

These seeds can be ground into a powder, which is referred to as both annatto powder and achiote powder. They can also be simmered in oil to create brightly colored achiote oil. When ground with ingredients like garlic, vinegar, oil, and salt, it becomes the achiote paste called for in our recipe.

Achiote turns up in one form or another in many major Mexican dishes, from mole sauce and tamales to certain stews and bean dishes. It can be used in a marinade or dry spice rub for grilled meat or mixed with oil to brush onto seafood. It sounds like once you start cooking with it, finding ways to use it is not really a problem!

The seeds are said to be incredibly hard. Several sources recommended soaking the whole seeds in warm water for ten minutes before grinding them in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. The whole seeds can also be used on their own and then removed before serving, like bay leaf or cardamom pods.

Here are a few sources for buying annatto seeds, achiote powders, and achiote pastes:

Annatto Seeds from Penzeys Spices
Achiote Powder from Gourmet Sleuth
Achiote Paste from Gourmet Sleuth
DIY Achiote Paste Recipe from Chow.com

How do you use achiote or annatto in your cooking?

Related: From the Spice Cupboard: Fenugreek

(Image: Gourmet Sleuth)