What’s the Best Achiote Paste Substitute to Use?

If you just came across achiote paste for the first time in one of your recipes, you’re in for a treat! This is one of the ingredients that helped us open an entirely new world of cooking because of its spicy, savory flavors. Achiote paste is prevalent in Mexican, Caribbean, and Central American cuisines, used as a coloring and flavoring in numerous dishes.

While you can typically find achiote paste in well-stocked supermarkets or online stores, there are times we either want something new or run out of it without knowing. That’s where achiote paste comes to the rescue!

You can use various substitutes for achiote paste-like harissa, sambal oelek, guajillo chili powder, or even make your own.

Read on as we explain these substitutes and a bit more about the spicy and flavorful achiote paste.

The 4 Best Substitutes For Achiote Paste

We also call achiote paste recado Rojo, a Latin ingredient you can find in Belizean and Mexican cuisines, especially in Oaxaca and Yucatan. It’s bright red with a slightly tangy taste, adding flavor to chicken, stews, rice, and other meat dishes.

Usually, we would cook achiote paste in oil or lard before adding it to dishes. You can also use it as a rub or marinade to meats about 4-6 hours before cooking, giving your meats a ton of flavor!

Regardless of why you need an achiote paste substitute, there are five options to choose from, which are:

1. Harissa Paste (The Top Substitute)

Harissa paste consists of chilies, caraway seeds, coriander, and garlic.

We love the intense flavor of this chili paste, adding heat to any dish, particularly in France and North Africa cuisine. You can even use harissa as a sandwich spread, though we usually eat harissa with lamb dishes.

We can make this paste from different chilies, so it’s worth checking the label to get a gist of how spicy it is. Expect a rich and smoky flavor similar to cayenne pepper and paprika.

You can make harissa yourself or find it in grocery stores and Middle Eastern markets. If you have harissa, use an equal 1:1 ratio when substituting achiote paste.

Learn: Does Harissa Paste Go Bad? The Fiery Truth Revealed!

2. Sambal Oelek

Sambal Oelek is an Indonesian chili paste made from red chilies, sugar, salt, and vinegar. You can find this ingredient in Asian grocery stores, online stores, or major supermarkets.

While we like this chili paste, it’s much saltier than other chili pastes because it contains more salt. We recommend using sambal oelek as a marinade or in stir-fry recipes, giving dishes more heat and smokiness like achiote paste.

Like harissa paste, you can make sambal oelek with any chili pepper, either red or green, whatever you prefer!

3. Cumin and Cayenne Pepper (Substitute in a Pinch)

Cumin is an aromatic and peppery spice working well as an achiote paste substitute. While you can use it on its own, we recommend mixing equal amounts of cayenne pepper for added heat or even cilantro!

However, note that cumin has a slightly bitter taste, so we recommend using it for soups, stews, or marinades, calling for achiote paste. It pairs well with garlic, onions, and tomatoes.

4. Guajillo Chili Powder

As the name suggests, guajillo chili powder comes from ground guajillo chilies, having a similar flavor to ancho and chipotle peppers, all of which are commonly found and used in Mexican dishes. You can create your own guajillo chili powder by grinding dried guajillo chilies and combining them with other spices.

That said, guajillo chilies aren’t as spicy, so it works as an achiote paste substitute without reaching for cold cups of milk! It works best as a marinade for fish and chicken or in other savory recipes looking for achiote paste.

You can always use hot sauce like sriracha if you want another substitute. It doesn’t have paste-like consistency or smokiness but is thicker than other hot sauces and packs on the heat. It’s also readily available in many groceries!

BONUS: Make Your Own Achiote Paste Substitute

Get Recipe: chilipeppermadness.com

You can always make your own if you want a more authentic flavor to your achiote paste substitute. It doesn’t get better than that!

However, it may take a few minutes off your prep time, so this may not be for you if you’re in a hurry. Moreover, you’ll need to prepare certain ingredients that might not be readily available!

But if you have time and the ingredients, then follow this recipe:

  • ¼ cup of annatto
  • One tablespoon of coriander seeds
  • One tablespoon of dried oregano
  • One tablespoon of cumin seeds
  • One teaspoon of black peppercorns
  • Two whole cloves
  • One teaspoon of kosher salt
  • Five cloves of peeled and coarsely chopped garlic
  • ½ cup of bitter orange juice (you can also use 1/3 cup white vinegar or ¼ cup of orange juice with ¼ cup of Mexican lime juice)


  1. Use a spice mill or mortar and pestle to grind the annatto seeds, coriander, cumin, peppercorns, and cloves.
  2. Mix the ground spices with garlic, salt, and bitter orange juice. Please place it in the blender, letting it process until it has a smooth consistency.
  3. Store the paste in an airtight container and place it in the fridge.
Pro-tip: If you’re in a pinch and have annatto seeds on hand, you can make a quick paste by mixing annatto seeds with oil or lard. Add your desired seasonings for added flavor.

Frequently Asked Questions

For those left with questions regarding achiote paste, we answer them below:

1. Are achiote paste and Sazon seasoning the same?

While both Latin seasonings share similar ingredients, they are actually different. Sazon is a powder you sprinkle into recipes for added flavor. Achiote is a paste getting its texture from the juice. Moreover, Sazon has cilantro, while achiote includes cloves, creating different flavor profiles.

2. What does achiote paste taste like?

Achiote paste tastes a bit earthy with a sweet, spicy, smoky flavor. You don’t taste it alone, but it complements dishes and meats, whether used as a marinade, rub or sauce.

3. What is achiote paste made from?

Achiote paste consists of annatto seeds of the achiote tree, where it gets its red-orange color. Manufacturers add other spices and seasonings like cumin, coriander, cloves, garlic, oregano, and pepper.

Fun fact: Locals of Central and South America and the Caribbean have used annatto seeds for centuries as cloth, edibles, or body paint because of their bright red or yellowish color.

Wrapping It Up

Achiote paste might be challenging to find for some of you, but that doesn’t mean you should scrap your recipe and call it a failure! Use any of these achiote paste substitutes from our list and create a delicious dish to serve.

If you want to learn more about food substitutions and other handy information regarding cooking and drinks, check out our other blog posts now!

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