Star anise is the beautiful eight-pointed star shaped spice you see at the store. It is hard, brown and carries little pea-sized seeds within it. It comes from an evergreen shrub native to Southwest China.
What Is Star Anise?
Star anise is used in cooking, but also in holistic medicine. Both the pod and the seeds are used and it can be utilized whole or ground.
The sweet aroma and distinctive scent are often associated with Christmas, Thanksgiving and other cold weather holidays. It is also commonly used in Chinese dishes and anything with Chinese five spice powder.
You might also see it in tea, brines, liqueurs and soup. Due to it’s beautiful shape, it is also used for purely ornamental reasons in baking and garnishes savory dishes.
The pod is harvested right before it ripens, at which point it is soft, then left to dry when it turns hard.
Star Anise vs. Anise Seed
Star anise and anise seed are often confused for each other due to their similar name. They even kind of taste similar. However, these two spices are very different. Star anise is large and star shaped while anise seeds are small and look more like fennel. Both have a licorice flavor.
Japanese star anise is also very different and highly toxic. Sometimes used an incense, do not cook with it!
Whole vs. Ground
Star anise is available in whole and ground forms, each of which are used differently. Whole pods are added to braised dishes, soups, potpourris and brines to add flavor. They are also added to bouquet garni to infuse flavor. The pods are hard and bitter, so they are removed before serving.
Ground star anise powder is used like other ground spices. Like most ground spices it loses its flavor fairly fast, so your best best is to use a spice grinder and grind your own when needed.
What Does Star Anise Taste Like?
It has a very strong aroma and flavor that is described as sweet and spicy, much like licorice.
It is also one of the five spices in Chinese five spice powder. The other spices are cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds.
In all applications, it is used in small quantities due to having BIG flavors.
Fennel seed, ground anise, Chinese five-spice powder or even cinnamon can be substituted. This, of course depends on the type of recipe you need to substitute it in.
Storage & Shelf Life
Whole star anise should be stored in a cool, dry place for up to 1 year. Humidity and sunlight can expedite the process. It won’t be rancid, but starts to lose flavor potency.
Ground star anise loses its potency and it all but flavorless by 6 months. Either buy a small container and use it fast or grind your own. I like to label the tops of my spices with the date I opened the container so I can easily keep track.
If either the whole or ground version is lackluster, you can rub it between your palms or toast it to try and revive.