Annatto – What Is This Stuff And Do You Have To Use It?

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Cutting The Cheese

You’re busy reading your way through a Cheddar, Gouda or a Red Leicester cheese recipe, getting prepared to try something new and there in the ingredients list is something you haven’t used before in your cheese making.

Annatto

What is Annatto?

Let me fill you in.

The cheese making ingredient Annatto is the ingredient used to dye your cheese bright yellow, orange or bright red.

Annatto is a natural ingredient, created from the pulp of the Achiote tree seed and is used as a natural food additive for cheese, as well as other foods. It is widely used in Latin American and Caribbean foods.

So why do you want to add colour to your cheese?

You might not and you certainly don’t have to.

It is believed that back in the day, cheeses with a higher yellow tone were considered a better cheese as it signalled that the cows that produced the milk for the cheese were fed on grass high in beta-carotene which produced more butterfat.

Therefore, in a bid to convince the buyers that a lower grade cheese was actually one of these more superior cheeses and thus demand a higher price, Annatto was added to improve the colour.

Depending on how much Annatto you add to your cheese, you can take it from a light yellow, through orange and right up to a bright red.

Annatto doesn’t noticeably effect the flavour of the cheese for most people though die hard cheese lovers will often pick up on a slight change in flavour. It also isn’t really a problem to use except for stained fingers if you get it on you.

The question then comes down to whether you are happy to leave your cheese a whiter colour, which is it’s natural colour, or do you want to colour it up?

I personally don’t use Annatto at all. I don’t feel the need to have my cheese display a higher yellow tone and no one I have given my cheese to has commented that it looks too pale or milky, or tastes any worse (which it won’t obviously but some people are still a little naive to this fact) because of it’s lighter colour.

I was really surprised on my first visit to the states to see how orange a standard piece of Cheddar was and to be honest, my feelings about it were quite the opposite of those in the 1800s. It just looked nasty, cheap and plasticy to me but then it probably was, even without the colour.

On the flipside, I have had American friends who have been confused by the colour of our New Zealand cheeses and couldn’t be convinced that it was Cheddar cheese they were eating.

So it really is a personal choice and won’t make any real difference to your make or the end results.

If you fancy playing with the aesthetics of your cheese, add the Annatto as the recipe suggests but if you are happy with nature determining your cheese colour as it was intended, leave it out.

I would be interested to know how many home cheese makers DO use Annatto. Leave me a comment below with whether you do or don’t and what reason you have for either decision.

Photo credit: © 2009 JD Hancock

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