Star Anise is a beautiful, unique spice that has a warm but intense anise flavour.
Learn more about this spice, including where it comes from, where to buy it, and how to cook with it!
Star Anise is, by far, the prettiest spice in my cupboard.
These fragrant little pods look more like delicate wood carvings than something you would cook with!
Yet, they're a key ingredient in many dishes that we know and love.
Where Does It Come From?
Star anise is the name given to the anise-scented fruit of an aromatic evergreen tree called Illicium verum. This tree is native to Southern China, as well as Vietnam, but is now also grown in India, Japan and the Philippines.
The fruit is harvested before it has ripened, and then is dried in the sun before being used a spice.
A dried star anise pod is dark brown, star-shaped and contains a pea-sized seed in each of its pointed segments.
However, most of the time when you buy star anise, the pods are not perfectly intact.
If you purchase your star anise from a reputable retailer, you're more likely to get whole pods. Whereas star anise that is sold in bulk at big box grocery stores are likely to be broken into smaller pieces.
What Does It Taste Like?
Dried star anise pods are not only beautiful, but intensely flavourful. So much so, that it's recommended to use restraint when flavouring dishes with this spice.
The flavour of star anise is, unsurprisingly, similar to anise seed (although it can be more bitter).
While both plants contain the essential oil anethole (which gives that warm anise flavour), they are otherwise botanically unrelated.
While some people liken the flavour of star anise to licorice, I actually think it’s closer to fennel.
What is Star Anise Used For?
Even if you're not familiar with star anise, chances are that you may have already tasted it.
Did you know that star anise is one of the five spices in Chinese five-spice powder?
It's also one of the predominant flavours in Vietnamese pho (a soup with a fragrant broth), and Sambuca (an Italian liqueur).
It's also not uncommon to see whole star anise pods in Indian biryanis, along with other whole spices.
Where to Buy It?
Star Anise is sold whole, in pieces, and ground into a powder.
Packages of whole star anise can be expensive, since it takes a lot of work to gather the spice and keep its shape intact.
The packages I usually buy have some whole pieces and lots of broken pieces. These packages are more affordable, and I don't feel bad about crushing the broken bits (save the whole ones for garnish!).
Last year I splurged and bought a can of whole star anise from a Canadian spice retailer called Spice Trekkers. The flavour of those pods was excellent and there were very few small broken pieces in the can.
Ground star anise can be difficult to find, and it can lose its flavour quickly, so I don't personally buy it. I just shave the broken pods on a Microplane grater. You can do this with whole cinnamon as well.
That being said, if you do see ground star anise at your grocery, you may want to buy it for convenience. Especially if you're planning on making something that will require a larger amount of ground spice.
You can usually find star anise at most grocery stores these days. If yours doesn't carry it, you can try an Asian market or buy it online from a reputable brand on Amazon.
What to Cook with Star Anise
If you're just getting started cooking with star anise, you should start adding it to your dishes slowly. Too many pods can overpower a dish, making it bitter and unpleasant to eat.
If you're adding it to a soup or stew, try using one or two pods to start. This can be enough to impart fragrance, without obliterating the rest of the dish.
A single pod can elevate a batch of homemade tomato sauce, too.
It also works well in a fruit Christmas punch, or in a classic Caribbean sorrel drink.
Grated or ground star anise can be a nice addition to desserts like gingerbread, chocolate cake or brownies.
How to Store It
As with all spices, you should store star anise in an airtight container, in a cool dark place.
Whole pods will last for several years, while the ground spice will stay fresh for about six months.
If you don’t have star anise and need it for a recipe, you can try substituting anise seed instead.
You could also try using Chinese five-spice powder, but it will depend on the recipe that you’re making.
It’s important to know that Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) is not safe for consumption. While it’s botanically similar to Chinese star anise, it contains a substance that makes it highly toxic.
Make sure to buy your star anise from a trusted source.
(This article was written on Nov 17, 2017. It has since been edited significantly for clarity and additional information has been added.)