Anise seeds lend a licorice flavor to baked goods and more. This spice is widely used in Middle Eastern, Italian, German, Indian, and Mexican cooking. Anise seed is used in Italian biscotti, desserts, and charcuterie. Its extract flavors alcohol including anisette and ouzo.
What Is Anise?
Anise seed is used as a spice, either ground or whole. Anise essential oil and extract are also made from the seeds. The seeds are produced by the Pimpinella anisum plant, which has been cultivated in Egypt, the Middle East, and Europe for many centuries. The seeds are small, brownish-gray, and slightly curved, with an aroma of licorice. The plant also has aromatic leaves and stems that can be used as an herb, tasting like licorice, fennel or tarragon.
Anise vs. Star Anise vs. Fennel
Despite its similar name, anise is not related to star anise (Illicium verum), which is another spice from a different family of plants. Either can be used to make anise extract as both contain anethole, which produces the characteristic anise flavor. Anise (Pimpinella anisum) is the source of the extract and seeds used in European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisine. The star anise is native to China. As star anise is cheaper to produce, today much of the essential oil of anise is from star anise rather than anise.
Anise is not the same thing as fennel, although the two do have a similar flavor, and the plants are somewhat similar looking. Anise and fennel are from the same family of plants (along with caraway, parsley, cilantro, and others), but they are different species. In general, fennel is served as a vegetable, while anise is used as a spice in seed form, either whole or ground.
What Does It Taste Like?
Anise has a licorice flavor that is sweet, mildly spicy, and very aromatic. This flavor is produced by anethole, an organic compound related to estragole, which produces flavors in tarragon and basil. One key characteristic of anethole is that it is very soluble in alcohol but only slightly soluble in water. As a result, when you add water to liqueurs that contain anise extract, the drink turns cloudy. This is known as the ouzo effect after one of the characteristic anise-flavored liqueurs.
Anise seed (whole or ground) can be added to the dough for baked goods, fruit fillings for pies, and ground meat before baking. Anise extract can be used in baked goods and to flavor drinks such as coffee or hot chocolate. The seeds can also be used to brew a licorice-flavored tea.
Anise seed is the flavoring for a number of alcoholic beverages, including anisette, ouzo, sambuca, and absinthe. The slight candy-like flavor has made them popular as after dinner or dessert drinks. They can also be used to add flavor to coffee.
You will find anise seed and its extract used in baked goods, savory dishes, and drinks in both the Old World and the New World. A few good ones are Pan Chuta sweet anise bread, double anise biscotti, and anise cinnamon sugar cookies.
If you don't have anise seed available for a recipe, the best substitution would be fennel seed, a few drops of anise extract, or star anise. Any of these would add the licorice flavor. If you have whole star anise, it should be ground before using if it's going to remain in the finished food, as it is woody and can't be chewed.
Look for ground and whole anise seed in the spice section of the supermarket. It is sold in small jars similarly to nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. Anise extract may be found in the baking section, sold in small bottles.
How to Make Your Own Anise Extract
If you have anise seeds, vodka, and a small jar, you can make anise extract. Then you can use it for making biscotti or add it to a shot of espresso for some extra gusto.
Sterilize a 4-ounce jar.
Add 1 teaspoon of anise seeds to the jar, then 1/2 cup of vodka.
Seal the jar tightly and store it someplace cool and dark for two to three months.
Then strain out the seeds by pouring it through cheesecloth into another bottle or jar.
Store in a cool, dark place. The extract should be good for up to five years.
Whole or ground anise seed should be stored in a cool, dark place for the best shelf life. The whole seeds will be of the best quality for three to four years. Ground anise seed will lose its potency faster but still be good to use.
Anise seeds are regarded as assisting digestion and helping prevent intestinal gas and flatulence. In India, anise seed is often offered to chew after the meal. Because it can have estrogen-like effects, it is being investigated for various uses as a supplement. But that could have a negative effect by stimulating hormone-dependent tumors and endometriosis, so caution is needed.
Premkuma LS. Fascinating Facts About Phytonutrients in Spices and Healthy Food Scientifically Proven Facts. Xlibris. 2014.
De Franciscis P, Colacurci N, Riemma G, et al. A Nutraceutical Approach to Menopausal Complaints. Medicina (Kaunas). 2019;55(9). doi:10.3390/medicina55090544