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 anise, the two plants are unrelated. A compound called anethole is responsible for the licorice-like flavor of both plants.
The star anise pod is dried before use as a spice, which turns it a deep brown or rust color. The pods have six to eight prongs, each containing a single seed. Both the seeds and the pod contain the sweet, potent anise flavor.
The Japanese star anise, Illicium anistatum, is highly toxic and must not be consumed. It is burned as incense. It is important not to confuse the two.
Flavor of Star Anise
Star anise has a sweet, spicy flavor, similar to licorice. Star anise can be slightly more bitter than Spanish anise, but is a much less expensive and comparable substitute. Star anise has a very strong, distinct flavor 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. Star anise pairs well with citrus, onions, poultry, beef, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
To make a substitute for star anise in a recipe, you could use fennel seed, common anise, or Chinese five spice powder if you have those available.
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 flavor roast duck and other meats. In Vietnamese cuisine, star anise is used to flavor 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.
Star anise is also widely used to flavor beverages. 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.
Purchasing and Storage
Star anise can be purchased whole or ground. 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, then removed before serving. The ground spice is much easier to work with, although the flavor diminishes faster.
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.
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.