Star anise is the seed pod from the fruit of the Illicium verum plant, an evergreen shrub native to Southwest China. Although this star-shaped pod has a similar flavor and name to Spanish anise, the two plants are unrelated. A compound called anethole is responsible for the licorice-like flavor of both plants.
The star anise pod, which is shaped like a star (hence its name), has six to eight points, each containing a single seed. Both the seeds and the pod contain the sweet, potent anise flavor. Before it is used as a spice, it is dried, turning it a deep brown or rust color.
It is important not to confuse star anise with the Japanese star anise, Illicium anistatum, which is highly toxic and must not be consumed. It is often burned as incense.
Flavor of Star Anise
Star anise has a very strong, distinct flavor that is sweet and spicy, similar to licorice, and should be used in small quantities. Although the flavor of star anise is generally thought of as sweet, it is commonly used in savory dishes; it pairs well with citrus, onions, poultry, beef, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
It can be slightly more bitter than Spanish anise but is a much less expensive and a comparable substitute. To replace star anise in a recipe, you can use fennel seed, common anise, or Chinese five spice powder.
How Star Anise is Used
Star anise is a pillar ingredient in Chinese cooking. It is one of the main flavors in Chinese five spice powder and is also used to season roast duck and other meats. In Vietnamese cuisine, star anise is part of the well-known soup, pho.
Star anise is also a common spice in Indian cuisine, where it is used in the spice blend garam masala, as well as dishes like biryani and drinks such as chai. In addition to chai tea, star anise is used to infuse several liquors; absinthe, sambuca, and pastis all utilize star anise to impart a licorice flavor to the finished product.
When the whole seed pods are used in cooking, the flavor is quite obtrusive and the pods can't be eaten. But whole pods can be simmered in sauces, marinades, and soups, and then removed before serving. The ground spice is much easier to work with, although the flavor diminishes faster.
Purchasing and Storage
Star anise can be purchased whole or ground. Ground star anise can be found in most grocery stores either in the spice aisle or Asian ingredient section. For whole star anise, you'll have better luck at ethnic grocery stores specializing in Asian or Indian cuisine.
Whether using the whole or ground spice, store the spice in an air-tight container away from moisture, heat, and sunlight. Whole star anise will remain fresh and vibrantly flavored for about one year, whereas the ground spice will begin to lose flavor after about six months. Toasting the ground spice sometimes heightens the flavor.