The mild flavor of annatto seeds combined with its fiery reddish-orange color makes it perfect for rice dishes. As a result, it is a popular seasoning and coloring additive in the Latin American and Asian culinary worlds. You can usually find this spice in Latin American markets in several forms: seed form, powder form or made into a paste. When shopping for annatto seeds, keep in mind that it may be labeled “achiote” or “achiote seeds.” If you are unable to find them and need some in an emergency, consider one of the annatto seed alternatives below.
Your best bet: Safflower
Safflower’s flavor is mild, just like that of annatto seeds; it is unlikely to clash with any of the other flavors in dishes that require annatto seeds. In fact, safflower is perfect if all you want is the color with little or no flavor. Like annatto seeds, safflower provides a brilliant yellow color to dishes and this is mainly what makes it an excellent annatto seed substitute.
You can use powdered annatto seed and powdered safflower in much the same way. In both cases, you only need only a small amount of the spice to dramatically alter the color of your dish.
A decent second choice: Turmeric
Turmeric is the bright yellow spice that gives curry powder its color. It comes from a rhizome related to ginger and it’s very ginger-like in appearance. This rhizome can be dried and powdered to create the turmeric spice that shows up throughout Indian cookery. Turmeric’s flavor is often likened to that of ginger, but with orange notes and earthiness in the background.
While this spice is best known for its role in curry powder, you can use it in the same ways that you would use ginger. Chop, grate or slice it and add it to your dish to give it a brilliant color. You can also fry it to color the oil in much the same way that annatto seeds would. Note that the flavor of turmeric may not pair well with all spices; keep this in mind when using to replace annatto seeds.
In a pinch: Saffron
As the most expensive spice in the world, saffron will be a more costly alternative than the other options on this list. It is made from the stigmas of the crocus flower, which are expensive to harvest.
It is also more pungent than the spices above, so you will have to be careful when using it. Saffron has an intense fragrance and a mild iodine flavor that may complement some dishes and detract from others. Use too much of it and your dish can take on a medicinal flavor that most people will find unpleasant. In most cases, you will need only a pinch to a 1/2 teaspoon. Like annatto seeds and the other spices above, saffron will provide your dish with a deep orange color that can make it more appetizing.
A combination of paprika and turmeric is a workable alternative to annatto seeds. Combining the two spices allows you to reduce the amount of turmeric and lower the risk of it interfering with other flavors in the dish. You should also consider the premade sofritos found in grocery stores that may also contain annatto seeds and which can be used if you have no other options.