What Is Star Anise and How Do You Use It?

updated Jul 11, 2022
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Star anise just may be the most unique and fun-looking spice in the pantry, but it’s more than just good looks.

This licorice-like and versatile spice originates in Southeast Asia and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Try it in this dessert recipe for quince and vanilla sorbet or for a weeknight dinner of chicken in coconut milk with lemongrass. If it’s cold outside, star anise gives mulled cider depth of flavor with notes of fennel and clove.

Consider this your guide to all things star anise. Here’s how to make this spice the star (I know, I know!) of your kitchen.

What Is Star Anise?

Native to China and Vietnam, this dark-brown star-shaped spice comes from a type of evergreen tree. Star anise typically has eight pointed segments, each containing a small tough-skinned seed. The spice has a powerful licorice flavor, stronger than that of common anise.

Taste: Sweet, bitter
Most popular use: Tea, soup, sauces, baked goods

How To Use Star Anise

Star anise can be used whole or ground, and in both sweet and savory dishes. Use this fragrant spice whole to infuse flavor into tea, mulled wine, soup broth, and even pasta sauce. The ground version can be used in baked goods and is an ingredient in five spice powder.

It is best stored in an airtight container — in a cool, dry place — for about a year.

What’s the Difference Between Star Anise and Anise Seed?

Although they share a word and black licorice flavor, anise seed and star anise are botanically different and native to different regions.

Anise is in the parsley family and is native to the eastern Mediterranean (Turkey, Greece, Crete, Egypt) and Middle East. It’s the seed of a plant. The seeds are small and range in color from a soft green to light tan. The flavor is less potent than star anise.

Star anise is native to Southeast Asia and Vietnam, where it is the dried fruit of a tree. and can take up to 15 years before it’s ready for harvest. It is a star-shaped pod with smaller seeds inside.

What Is a Good Substitute for Star Anise?

Every spice has unique attributes, which makes it impossible to find a perfect substitution and create an identical flavor profile. You can, however, find something that speaks to the essence of the spice — and for star anise, that is licorice and warmth.

  • Chinese five spice powder: This blend of star anise, fennel seeds, pepper, cinnamon, and clove makes the top of the list because it actually includes star anise. It will impart flavors from the other spices and the licorice flavor of star anise won’t be quite as strong, but it will mimic both the flavor and the warmth of the spice. It’s not the best substitute for making drinks, because it’s a powder rather than a whole spice and it would negatively impact the texture of your drink.
  • Fennel seeds: Fennel is a bulbous plant with feathery, dill-like fronds. Similar to star anise, it has a strong black licorice flavor. You want to use less fennel seed than you would star anise. Stick to a quarter of the star anise measurement recommended in the recipe.
  • Anise seed: This is probably the closest in flavor to star anise. It shares the black licorice flavor of star anise, but is a little softer. To substitute anise seed for star anise, use 3/4 of the star anise the recipe recommends and then scale up as needed.
  • Cinnamon, clove, and allspice: These common baking spices are often recommended as a substite for star anise, but they won’t provide any of the licorice flavor star anise is known for. They will create that cozy, warming background flavor for your recipe, so if you use any of these as a replacement, start with a small amount in your dish and then taste and adjust.

Recipes for Cooking with Star Anise