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Ingredient Guide

A Guide To Star Anise

22 April 2022

Discover all there is to know about this spectacular looking star-shaped spice.

What is star anise?

Star anise is arguably the most beautiful spice in your kitchen cupboard. It’s one of the central spices in Chinese cooking, playing a starring role in the Chinese five-spice powder. It comes from the fruit of the tropical evergreen tree Illicium verum that can grow up to 65 feet tall. The fruit is picked while it’s still green and unripe. It’s then dried in the sun to develop its reddish-brown, rust-like colour, hard outer pods and unique flavour. The delicate spice usually has between six to eight points, each containing one pea-sized seed, measures up to 3cm long and is available whole, or ground. While star anise would make a lovely addition to your bowl of potpourri, there’s a lot more to this spice than it’s attractive looks.

Where does star anise come from?

Star anise is native to southern China and Vietnam, where it’s been used in cooking and medicine for thousands of years. The English explorer, Sir Thomas Cavendish, discovered the spice in the Philippines during the 16th century and brought it back to Europe, where it quickly gained popularity and spread into Russia, and later to Germany. The evergreen trees from which this flower-shaped spice is picked, prefer to be grown in damp woodlands, partial sun and dappled shade. Today, star anise is grown in China, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan.

Did you know?

Star anise is one of the spices in the Chinese five-spice powder, alongside fennel, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon and cloves. It’s  also one of the main flavours in sambuca and absinthe. 

What does star anise taste like?

Star anise has a liquorice-like aroma and flavour, which comes from the spice’s essential oil, anthenol. It’s spicy and slightly bitter too, with a hint of sweetness. But it is also warming and earthy, reminiscent of cloves, allspice and cinnamon. This warm, aromatic flavour makes it the perfect addition to winter drinks and cocktails, like star anise tea, a spiced Old Fashioned or the bourbon cocktail “A Long Winter’s Nap”. The spice’s flavours intensify during cooking. So make sure you don’t use too much, or it can leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste.

Whole versus ground star anise: what’s the difference?

Whole and ground star anise are used differently in cooking. Whole star anise pods are usually simmered in slow-cooking soups, stews, curries and briases alongside bay leaves and other whole spices, like cloves and cinnamon sticks to infuse flavour, and are removed after cooking.  You can also grind the whole stars using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, instead of using the pre-ground version, in order to get the spice’s maximum liquorice-like flavour and aroma. Ground star anise is more subtle in flavour and is used in baked dishes, desserts, sauces and other dishes.

Is star anise the same as anise seed?

Due to their similar taste, and name, it’s not surprising that star anise and anise seed are often confused with each other. But they come from different plants – star anise is a member of the magnolia family, while anise seed belongs to the Apiaceae or parsley family. And they have different origins too  – star anise is native to China and anise comes from the Mediterranean and Egypt. They’re also used differently in cooking. Star anise features heavily in Chinese cuisine, like noodle soups, stews and braises. While anise seeds are commonly used in breads, herbal teas and seafood recipes throughout the Mediterranean, and also in Italian biscotti. Star anise seeds are also larger than anise seeds, which look more like fennel seeds. Due to their similar flavour profile (they both contain anethole), you can usually get away with substituting one for the other, but you’ll have to use star anise ground, not whole if you’re using it as a replacement for anise seed. But be aware, star anise has a stronger flavour than anise seed, so be mindful with your quantities your quantities.

Did you know?

In China, star anise is believed to ward off the “evil eye” and bring good luck.

What cuisine can star anise be used in?

Star anise features heavily in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. It’s a key ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder and Vietnamese Pho, a delicate noodle soup made from broth, beef (or other meat) ginger, onion and spices (cinnamon, cardamon, coriander and of course, star anise). In Western cultures star anise is often used to flavour liqueurs, like absinthe, sambuca and pastis, an anise-flavoured spirit and aperitif most commonly produced in the south of France. And you’ll often find it in your mulled wine and spiced cider at Christmas. In Thailand it’s used to flavour iced teas, while in India ground star anise is added to garam masala (an Indian spice blend), which is used heavily in curries. It’s also a popular spice in Malay, Filipino, Pakistani and Lebanese cuisine.

Where to buy star anise

Most supermarkets stock whole and ground star anise, but to get your hands on the freshest spice head to an Asian or Chinese specialist store. You can also buy star anise from wholefood stores and online. 

Top tip When shopping for star anise break off one of the pod’s points. If you can immediately smell the spice’s powerful aroma, you know it’s fresh.

How to use star anise

A little goes a long way with this pungent pretty spice. So always read the quantities stated in your recipe, especially if you’re using it whole. If in doubt, start with a pinch of ground (which works wonders in a stir-fry), and go from there. Use too much and it will overpower the other ingredients in your dish, resulting in a bitter, unpleasant taste. Although star anise has a sweet flavour, it’s commonly used in savoury dishes to pack a punch. It pairs exceptionally well with fattier meats like duck and goose, and due to its slight smokiness it’s also great with pork belly and lamb. It will elevate your Sunday roast, working beautifully with root vegetables, like carrots or red cabbage. Star anise is highly effective in sweet breads and desserts too, like cookies, brownies, gingerbread, pumpkin pie and spiced cakes. And its warm, spicy flavour pairs well with certain fruits, like pear, plums and figs – adding depth and warmth to an apple crumble and giving a delicious kick to sorbets, particularly rhubarb, mandarin, orange, pineapple and lime. Outside of the kitchen, star anise essential oil is used for scenting candles, soaps and perfumes due to its intense, warm aroma. And it also features in toothpaste for fresh-smelling breath.

What flavours complement star anise?

Combine star anise with other spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves when you’re cooking baked goods, in particular cookies and gingerbread. Together they make the most wonderful festive recipes like the German treats stollen and ​​Lebkuchen. Star anise also adds a touch of Christmas spice to the sweet buttery glaze of carrot cake and also tastes magical alongside fig and port in Christmas cake.

How to store star anise

When stored correctly, these pretty little stars will reward you with a long shelf life. Kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight, will keep the spice’s wonderfully warming flavour for as long as possible. Stored whole, star anise can stay fresh for up to two years, while ground star anise lasts about one year.

Substitutes for star anise

If star anise isn’t available at your local supermarket, your best substitute is Chinese five-spice powder, because star anise usually features in this magical blend. For each star anise, use 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder. Fennel seeds are another good alternative because they carry a similar sweet liquorice flavour, although they’re not as strong. Cloves and allspice will also give you a similar bitter-sweetness and add depth to your dishes. Finally, if you’re out of star anise but have a bottle of sambuca to hand, you could try adding a splash in your stews.

Does star anise have any health benefits?

This versatile spice is also known for its medicinal properties with its pods containing an impressive source of several powerful compounds, like shikimic acid. Famous for its antiviral effects, shikimic acid has been shown to boost the immune system, helping to fight off colds and viruses. The spice is also rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, plus numerous antibacterial properties too. Traditionally, the spice was used to treat rheumatism, aid digestion and cure colic in babies. If you’re feeling bloated, or a little bit windy after a big meal, try sipping some star anise tea, or add a few drops of star anise essential oil to hot water to help your meal go down. The spice is also believed to help regulate blood pressure and circulation, improve sleep and protect your skin. The ingredients within the spice’s essential oils also make star anise an effective insect repellent.

Did you know? Star anise can be used to increase sex drive in both men and women.