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.
Try adding whole pods to soups or stews that are made with beef or chicken, like this Pho with beef and noodles, or this chicken soup with shiitake mushrooms.
A single pod can elevate a batch of homemade tomato sauce, too.
You can also use the whole pods to mull wine, cider or beer, or non-alcoholic drinks like spiced apple cider and spiced hot cocoa.
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.)
I was searching what spice tasted like liquorice and how to use it and found your blog
I hope this was helpful Carol! Fennel seed has a liquorice flavour too, in case you haven't come across that yet.
I got attracted to Star Anise for the health benefits. Digestive Ailments have improved since using the Star Anise. As a tea, usually boiling it, with a Spearmint tea bag. Reading your blog opened up some ideas. Grinding it to add the batters, will try. Is there a way to soften them?
I leave the boiled pods in my teapot to reboil pot after pot, until the flavour is gone. Economical. I Will try grinding to a powder, place in a Tea Egg then make the tea. I find it makes a great Iced Tea, with so many other flavoured teas to add. A beverage section would have been nice, so on to more searching.
Thank You for posting, 🙂
I love adding Star Anise to tea, but I haven't tried it with spearmint tea yet! Thanks for sharing that. As for softening them, I haven't found that anything makes them soft enough to eat - you either have to steep them to add flavour to something, or grate/grind it into powder to make it edible. I'll do some research and see if I can add some more beverage suggestions to the post, thanks for your feedback.
I would like to start using star anise in cooking, but I have read that it is poisonous. What part is poisonous if you can just grind it or simply add it whole. Does it have toxicity that a kidney transplant recipient should be concerned about? Your reply will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
Hi Helen, I had to do a bit of research to find out what you might be referring to. The star anise that is sold in the spice section of your grocery store is not poisonous to humans, but like other food items, it may not be ok for pets to consume (like how dogs shouldn't eat chocolate). The spice can be used ground or whole without issue, as far as I can tell (I am not a doctor). You would never consume a large quantity of star anise as it is a very strongly flavoured spice.
What you might be thinking of is Japanese star anise, Illicium anistatum, which is not the same thing as regular star anise. Japanese start anise is highly toxic if eaten, but apparently it is burnt as incense in Japan. This is not the star anise that is sold in grocery stores. To be safe, buy your star anise from a reputable grocery store and not online to ensure you are getting the real thing.
That being said, please consult your doctor to find out if star anise is OK for you to consume as a kidney transplant recipient. I am not a medical professional, sorry.
Star anise and fresh ginger tea is amazing.
I'll have to try that! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Can I use Star Anise in baking rusks?
I've never made rusks myself, but I'm sure you could flavour them with a little grated star anise. Either buy the ground version, or grate a whole one (not all of it) on a spice grater. I think if you use it sparingly, it should be ok!
I purchased whole star anise to make Christmas Potpourri and it was a huge hit! Since I purchased a 4 oz bag (Amazon) i had some left over. I actually love it in my coffee with a cinnamon stick! OMG this is DELISH! I actually use it over and over until the flavor wears out (maybe 8-10 or more cups).
Hi Regina, thanks for sharing your tip! I'll have to try that - it sounds amazing!