Star Anise: A Tasty and Versatile Spice With a Licorice Flavor
Attractive and Flavorful Fruits
Star anise plants have attractive, unusual, and very flavorful fruits that smell and taste like licorice. The fruit is woody and is shaped like a star with eight rays or a flower with eight petals. Each “petal” is a seed pod that contains a brown seed. The seeds contain a volatile and aromatic oil that has many uses.
The intact fruit has a strong, pungent, and mildly sweet taste that somewhat resembles the weaker taste of anise seeds. Anise is an unrelated plant, despite its similar name. Star anise is an evergreen shrub or tree. Anise is a herbaceous plant that is related to parsley.
Star anise is sold as whole fruits, pieces of fruit, or a ground spice. The best spice flavor is obtained when the fruit is ground just before use. The stars or ground spice are tasty additions to both sweet and savory foods.
Star anise belongs to the plant family known as the Schisandraceae while anise (or aniseed) belongs to the Apiaceae family.
An Important Precaution
There’s one very important precaution that must be taken when purchasing or using star anise, especially when it's sold as a tea. The fruits must come from the plant with the scientific name Illicium verum, which is often known as Chinese star anise. This plant grows mainly in parts of China and Vietnam and produces fruits that are safe to eat.
Japanese star anise (scientific name Illicium anisatum) is a related plant, but its fruits are toxic and dangerous when they enter the body. Both plants are often simply called “star anise”, so a consumer needs to check carefully to ensure that pure Chinese star anise is present in their spice. Reputable companies make sure that their product is the Chinese species, but it's still important to be careful.
There have been some reports of harmful effects from ingesting Chinese star anise, but researchers believe that this is because the spice was mixed with the cheaper Japanese version.
The star anise plant usually grows as a tree. Its leaves are lanceolate, or shaped like a lance head. The flowers are yellow. The fruits are picked while they are green and then sun dried. The plant can be grown in North America, but special care is needed because it can't tolerate low temperatures.
Some Uses of the Spice
A star anise fruit generally has eight seed pods, although the number can vary. It has a complex taste in which the dominating licorice flavor is accompanied by a background that is minty and tangy at the same time.
The spice provides a lovely flavor to teas, infusions, mulled cider, some wines, and coffee. Adding one or two stars to slow cooked foods such as stewed fruit, savory stews, beans, and simmered meats enhances the taste. The stars are generally removed before the food is served. The ground spice is a great addition to baked goods like cakes and cookies. Some people like to add the spice to cooked porridges and grains. It's also said to go well with tomatoes, although I've never tried this combination myself.
Star anise also has non-culinary applications. The essential oil of the spice is used to add fragrance to perfumes and soaps, for example. The oil is also added to some toothpastes and mouthwashes to provide a pleasant taste.
Star Anise and Cashew Creme Brûlée Recipe
Spice Use in Different Cultures
Star anise is an ingredient in Chinese five spice powder. This popular Asian seasoning traditionally contains ground cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise, and Szechwan peppercorns, although today a different spice combination may be used in the recipe. The powder is used with poultry, pork, and seafood. It's sometimes added to stir-fried vegetables and is also used in desserts. Garam masala, a popular Indian and South Asian spice mixture, commonly contains star anise as well.
Another dish that traditionally contains star anise is Vietnamese pho. This is a type of beef noodle soup which contains a broth made from spices and marrow bones. Tea eggs, a popular snack in China and Chinese communities, are also flavoured with star anise. To make tea eggs, hard boiled eggs are cracked and then placed in a tea which contains spices. The liquid is absorbed into the shell and into the egg itself, creating a marbled effect. The eggs are eaten cold.
An essential oil can be extracted from the spice and used as a flavoring agent in items such as jams and liqueurs. Anisette, sambuca, and ouzo are usually flavored with star anise oil instead of oil from anise seeds, since star anise is cheaper to obtain.
Star Anise Spiced Pear Crumble Recipe
Other Uses of the Spice
Star anise may be used with other strongly scented spices to provide fragrance to a room. The spice is popular in potpourris, especially at Christmas. The oil is sometimes used in aromatherapy.
The fruits are sometimes chewed as a breath freshener. The intact fruit has a woody texture which isn't very appealing, however. I find that chewing it irritates my mouth and tongue, unless I use only a small amount of a star.
Star anise contains a relatively high level of shikimic acid compared to other plants. The shikimic acid is extracted from the fruit and used as the first substance in a series of reactions that ends with the production of oseltamivir. Oseltamivir is a prescription medication that fights both influenza A and influenza B viruses and is sold under the trade name of Tamiflu. Shikimic acid for Tamiflu manufacture is also obtained from fermentation of glucose by a special strain of E. coli bacteria.
Although shikimic acid from star anise can be used to make a medicine that fights viruses, there is no evidence that the intact spice is antiviral.
Star Anise, Pear, and Tamarind Tarte Tatin Recipe
Possible Health Benefits of Chinese Star Anise
Star anise contains a substance called anethole, which is responsible for the licorice flavor of star anise fruits, anise seeds, and fennel seeds. (Like anise, fennel is a member of the parsley family.) Anethole is dissolved in the oil inside the plant and is insoluble in water.
Under certain conditions, anethole is an antibacterial and antifungal chemical. Anethole extracted from plants has killed microbes in lab equipment. Researchers don't yet know whether the chemical fights microbes when it is inside plants or their parts—including star anise fruits—or whether anethole is antimicrobial inside the human body. The chemical may need to reach a certain concentration in order to fight microbes. In addition, it's possible that our body may break it down before it has a chance to work. More research is needed.
Star anise has traditionally been used to relieve discomfort in the digestive system. At the moment, WebMD says there is insufficient evidence that the spice has health benefits. The Chinese version is considered to be safe when used in normal food quantities, however.
Chinese star anise has been used as a spice for a long time without harmful effects and might have health benefits. In contrast, Japanese star anise is poisonous. It contains sikimitoxin, which causes convulsions, and anisatin, which also causes dangerous neurological effects. Star anise must be bought from a reputable source and must be the pure, uncontaminated Chinese species.
How to Make Star Anise Chicken
Buying and Using the Spice
In my area I can get packets of star anise fruits in a nearby produce store and in a health food store, but not in my nearest supermarket. Star anise is also sold online. The whole stars can be added to a dish that contains liquid to provide an infusion of flavor, or they can be crushed in a coffee grinder and mixed with food. Cooks often state that one ground star anise fruit equals 1/2 teaspoon of ground anise seeds.
If the spice isn't used soon after purchase, it should be stored in an airtight container, preferably in its intact form. This will help to maintain its taste and fragrance.
Star anise should be used in small quantities, since its flavor is strong and could overwhelm the taste of a food if a large amount is added. In a small amount, though, the spice is a delicious addition to foods.
Star anise facts from McGill University
Some uses of star anise from the Smithsonian Magazine
Star anise information from WebMD
Antifungal activity of anethole in the essential oil of star anise fruit from PubMed, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
ZAHID, M. S. H., AWASTHI, S. P., HINENOYA, A., & YAMASAKI, S. (2015). Anethole inhibits growth of recently emerged multidrug resistant toxigenic Vibrio choleraeO1 El Tor variant strains in vitro. The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 77(5), 535–540. http://doi.org/10.1292/jvms.14-0664
© 2011 Linda Crampton