Star anise is the seed pod from the fruit of the Illicium verum plant, an evergreen shrub native to Southwest China. The star anise pod, which is shaped like a star (hence its name), has an average of eight points, each containing a single pea-sized seed. Both the seeds and the pod are used in cooking and contain the sweet, potent anise flavor. Star anise is sold whole and ground.
What Is Star Anise?
Star anise is used in culinary applications for its distinct flavor but is also employed for its medicinal benefits. It is grown in China, Indo-China, and Japan and sometimes referred to as Chinese star anise. 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 make tea and season roast duck and other meats. In Vietnamese cuisine, star anise is part of the well-known soup, pho. In Western cultures, it is more often used to flavor liqueurs, such as absinthe, sambuca, and pastis, as well as baked goods like cookies and cakes.
The star anise pod is picked before it ripens and then dried in the sun, turning it a deep brown or rust color. The distinctive flavor is derived from anethol, the same oil found in anise seed giving both a licorice taste.
Star Anise vs. Anise Seed
Star anise and anise seed are often confused with each other due to their similar taste and name. However, these two plants are not from the same plant family—star anise is from the magnolia whereas aniseed is from the parsley family. The seeds also differ in appearance; star anise seeds are larger and a dark reddish-brown color while anise seeds are smaller and look more like fennel seeds.
It is also 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.
Star anise originated in southern China and has been used as a medicine and spice for more than 3,000 years. During the late 1500s, star anise came to Europe via an English sailor and soon after was traded along the tea route from China through Russia. Because of its sweet flavor, star anise was mainly used in jams, syrups, and puddings and later substituted in commercial drinks for anise seed.
Whole vs. Ground
Whole and ground star anise are used differently in cooking. The whole pods are added to braised dishes, soups, and stews to infuse flavor and are removed at the end of cooking. Ground star anise powder is used similarly to other ground spices. Powdered star anise begins to lose its flavor shortly after it is ground up, so the best method is to buy whole star anise and grind it as needed. The pods and seeds can be ground together.
What Does It Taste Like?
Star anise has a very strong, distinct flavor that is warm, sweet, and spicy, similar to licorice, fennel seed, clove, and anise seed, of course. 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 and should be used in small quantities.
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Cooking With Star Anise
The cooking technique will depend on whether whole pods or ground star anise is being used. Whole pods can be simmered in sauces, marinades, and soups, and then removed before serving. The pods do not soften as they cook and therefore cannot be consumed. The pods are very strong in flavor and if added too early to a recipe can overwhelm the other ingredients. The ground spice is much easier to work with and is added to a recipe similar to any other spice.
Recipes With Star Anise
Whole star anise is good to add to fattier meat braised dishes such as a braised pork belly. Ground star anise is a common spice in Indian cuisine, where it is used in the spice blend garam masala and drinks such as chai, and can be added to pumpkin pie and gingerbread for another layer of flavor.
To replace star anise in a recipe, you can use common anise or Chinese five-spice powder. For each star anise called for in the recipe, use 3/4 teaspoon crushed anise seeds or 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder. Fennel seeds can also be used but won't have as strong of a licorice taste. If a liquid will work in the recipe, 1 tablespoon of anisette, Pernod, or Sambuca can be substituted for each star anise, or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon anise extract.
Where to Buy Star Anise
Star anise can be purchased whole or ground with the whole being more difficult to find; ethnic grocery stores specializing in Asian or Indian cuisine would be the best option. Ground star anise can be found in most grocery stores either in the spice aisle or Asian ingredient section.
If purchasing whole star anise, make sure the pods are not broken. Whether whole or ground, the star anise should smell very fragrant.
Store both whole or ground 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 before using sometimes heightens the flavor.
Health Benefits of Star Anise
Chinese medicine has used star anise for centuries, and Western medicine has recently begun to recognize this spice's pharmacological and antimicrobial properties. Star anise contains shikimic acid, a compound that is found in Tamiflu, a treatment for influenza, and thus the spice has been used to treat coughs and flu-like symptoms.
Star anise is rich in antioxidants and vitamins A and C which help against diabetes and early signs of aging. It has also been shown to improve digestion, reducing bloating and gas, indigestion, and constipation.
Singh P, Gupta E, Mishra N, Mishra P. Phytochemicals as Lead Compounds for New Drug Discovery. Elsevier. 2020.
Patra JK, Das G, Bose S, et al. Star anise (Illicium verum): Chemical compounds, antiviral properties, and clinical relevance. Phytother Res. 2020;34(6):1248-1267. DOI: 10.1002/ptr.6614