Anise (pronounced "ANN-iss") usually refers to the seeds of a plant with aromatic leaves and stems that taste like licorice, fennel, or tarragon. While the leaves of the anise plant can be used as an herb, it's mainly the seeds that are used in cooking. Sometimes called aniseed, the seeds are used as a spice, either ground or whole. Aniseed is used in various baked goods and desserts. For example, Italian biscotti is made with anise extract. Anise seeds are also frequently used in sausage making and charcuterie.
Anise is produced by the Pimpinella anisum plant, which has been cultivated in Egypt, the Middle East, and Europe for many centuries. It is regarded as assisting digestion and helping prevent intestinal gas and flatulence.
Anise seeds are also the basis for a number of alcoholic beverages, including anisette, ouzo, sambuca, and absinthe. You may have noticed that these beverages all share a reputation for being rather, well, let's say potent. They also have the unique characteristic of changing color or crystallizing when mixed with other liquids. Anise-flavored alcohol is known for having a distinct licorice flavor which is certainly not for everyone. 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.
Anise vs. Star Anise and Fennel
Despite its similar name, anise is not related to star anise (Illicium verum), which is another spice from a different family of plants. Nor is it 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're not the same species. In general, fennel is served as a vegetable, while anise is used as a spice in seed form, either whole or ground.
You've probably heard the term spice and herbs used interchangeably but they actually refer to different parts of the plant. Herbs, whether dried or fresh, are prepared from the leafy part of a plant. A spice is any part of a plant, other than the leaves, which, when dried, is used as a flavoring ingredient in cooking. Spices can be produced from seeds (anise, cumin, coriander, mustard, and many others), bark (cinnamon), fruit (peppercorns, vanilla), roots (horseradish), or flower buds (cloves).
Homemade Anise Extract
If you have anise seeds and some spare vodka, 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.
You'll need to sterilize a 4-ounce jar. Add one teaspoon of anise seeds to the jar, then half a cup of vodka. Seal 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. Of course, if you don't have a few months to spare most grocery stores sell small bottles of anise extract. Look for it in the baking section.