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Annatto/achiote (Recipe: vaca atolada, or "cow stuck in the mud")


Guest post and photos by Peter in Brazil, chef and co-owner of Pousada do Capão

I mentioned urucum (which means "red" in the Tupi language) in my very first guest post on The Perfect Pantry as one of the 21 essential and ever-present items in any Brazilian pantry. When Lydia told me she had some urucum (achiote in Spanish, annatto in English) in her pantry just begging to be used, I figured it was time to get to work.

Annatto (the English name that might be more familiar to you), though very subtle in flavor, is huge on color. Some people swear it lends depth to food, tasting a bit of nutmeg and black pepper, but more importantly it gives that gorgeous, appetizing, mouth-watering red glow to so many Brazilian dishes: fish moquecas, chicken ensopadas, braised meats, rice and beans. The Indians loved red. The Portuguese loved red. So when the two met in the 1500s…

Yes, once again the Portuguese and Spanish explorers and traders are responsible for the globalization of one of our local pantry items.

Native to the Amazon forests of Peru and Brazil, annatto is a shrub or small tree with heart-shaped leaves, lovely pinkish-lavender flowers, and spiny, red, almond-shaped seed pods yielding numerous small, brick-red, triangular seeds.


The fine layer of resinous red flesh encasing each seed is used to make the annatto oil, paste and powder used in cooking all over the world. In local folk medicine it has applications that run the gamut from anti-inflammatory to digestive; currently, scientists are studying its hypertension- and cholesterol-lowering properties.

The Indians used annatto as sun block, bug repellent, war paint, and offerings to the gods. Commercially, it's a nutritious and natural alternative to red dye number two, to color everything from cheese to hot dogs to lipstick to fabric.

Here in Minas Gerais, cooks fry the seeds in cooking oil to extract the color, or pound the seeds with cornmeal and a bit of oil to a fine powder in the mortar and pestle. The hard seed kernels are sieved out in both cases.

Every kitchen has a bottle of annatto oil and/or powder sitting at the edge of the stove beside a pot of garlic crushed with salt and a jar of hot peppers. The cornmeal in the powder form has the added benefit of giving a bit of a liaison to sauces.

Vaca atolada ("cow stuck in the mud")

Here’s a traditional recipe for vaca atolada (roughly translated as “Cow Stuck in the Mud” –- you’ll understand when you make it) adapted from Dona Lucinha of Serro. It’s a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, short rib and mandioca stew, perfect for the cold New England nights I remember. In a pinch, substitute nice waxy potatoes for the mandioca, but it’s worth hunting for the real thing. If you only have annatto seeds, grind them with a mortar and pestle to make annatto powder for this recipe. Serves 4.


2 lbs beef short ribs (have the butcher cut them in 2” pieces)
4 Tbsp cachaça or light rum
2 Tbsp lime juice
Water, as needed
2 Tbsp butter or lard or bacon fat
1-1/2 Tbsp chopped garlic
2 medium onions, chopped
1 Tbsp annatto powder
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp each chopped parsley and scallions
Salt to taste
Hot pepper, to taste
2 lbs mandioca or waxy potatoes


Wash the ribs. Put ribs in a saucepan with cachaça and lime juice and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Heat the butter, lard, or bacon fat in a heavy casserole. Add the garlic, the onion, and the drained ribs and sauté until browned, being sure not to burn the garlic. Add the annatto, mixing well and  water, a little at a time, to form a nice broth. Add the bay leaf, the parsley, the scallions, salt to taste, and simmer, covered until the meat is tender. Adjust the seasonings -– salt and hot pepper to taste. Meanwhile, wash, peel, and cut the mandioca (or potato) in 2” chunks and parboil in water until semi-soft. You don’t want it falling apart...yet. Drain and add to the ribs. Continue cooking until it forms a nice thick, succulent stew –- the ribs tender, the mandioca melting into the sauce. You’ll by now understand the derivation of the recipe's name! Readjust seasoning, as the mandioca will soak up the salt. Serve with garlicky rice, collards, and French-fried sweet potatoes.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Cheese-y cornmeal cakes
Brazilian cheese bread
Slow-cooked beef and green chile stew
Root-vegetables-with-beef stew
Polenta, cheese and squash loaf

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Woohoo! I know what this is. I have it in my spice rack for just one recipe, but it is easy to find where I live (in a large hispanic population). I use it for a Cuban black bean recipe found in Sarah Leah Chase's Nantucket Open-House Cookbook, which is a fantastic cookbook with quite the cult following! (:

The annato in the bean recipe is like little pebbles and is used to flavor and color the oil the same way you would with garlic.

Really great post, about a particularly interesting ingredient that I know way too little about. The flower is gorgeous too. Thanks for posting this one.

Sounds delicious! May have to try this!

Great post! Sometimes I feel like a cow stuck in the mud, but what you describe here sounds like a much tastier state of existence!

Isn't that the red color in Red Leicester and other English cheeses?
Great photo. I love to see the original state of the food.

I've been using achiote seeds and the powdered form a lot for Latin recipes I've been making. I like it a lot.

I like the sound of this Vaca Atolada recipe. Can't wait to try it. ;-)


Page - I have that cookbook (and its partner) here in Brazil and have often made those very same beans, using my home grown fresh urucum, to accompany the delicious Cuban pork roast.

Laurie - Thanks! You should see these bushes when in full bloom!!! The flowers of the cerrado are amazing - I don't think a day goes by when I don't discover some new plant.

Gretchen - This recipe is just one of many variations. Some use tomato. Some use pork instead of beef, in which case it becomes Porco Atolado. All are delicious, but this is my favorite so far. Hope you will try it.

T. W. Barritt - We all go through that sometimes, don't we? Thanks.

Rupert - Yup - and betcha they put it in Velveeta as well. Aveda (now Estee Lauder?) has a contract with the Indians to purchase all they can produce for lipstick. Anyway, thanks. I'm with you.

Paz - What are you making? Would love to know. Please share. And hope you will try your hand at Vaca Atolada soon.

Sounds like Dona Flor's cooking school again. I think I'll try it -- I'm in California there must be hispanic markets somewhere around.

This sounds familiar...I think it is called ashwete in the philippines ...I know it gives a red color but I forgot what it could be use for. Thanks for the info!

I love this for traditional latin chicken and rice dishes. They're not the same without it.

I use that with chicken. I just love the name of this dish.

mae - Dona Flor would be making moquecas with lots of dende. I love moquecas, But here we are short on seafood, so it's beef and pork and chicken. I'm sure you'll find urucum in California. Good luck!

veron - I know that the Spaniards brought urucum to the Philippines, so ashwete must be it! Do you have any good Filipino recipes?

EB - True. Color is so important. Here we use turmeric (saffron of the earth) to color rice dishes as well.

peabody - Me too. Couldn't decide whether to translate as "cow stuck in the mud" or "beef in a bog". In any case, it's rainy season here right now and there are lots of cows (and cars) with mobility issues.

Peter, cows are sliding on the ice around here. This is a perfect dish for our freezing nights. I can hardly wait to try it.

Marcia - looks like you are in the middle of a real cold snap. Glad I returned to Brazil before the New Year. Time for you to whip up a huge pot full of vaca atolada!

I love hot and spicy food but this is right on the edge of to hot for me, good for as long as I can eat it though.

This ingredient (2 lbs mandioca or waxy potatoes ), we can find in a Mexican store or in a frozen products area in any supermarket in USA called YUCCA. It is peaces of roots that you need to put to cook together in the stew. The Yucca or Manioc or Mandioca, will give the consistence that we call " MUD ".
In this recipe, 2 lbs of ribs meat for sure you just need 1 lb of Yucca , in this proportion. Enjoy it. It's wonderful.

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