Star Anise: A Tasty and Versatile Spice With a Licorice Flavor

Updated on December 28, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

Star anise as part of an Advent wreath
Star anise as part of an Advent wreath | Source

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 fruits; each "petal" of the fruit contains a seed
Star anise fruits; each "petal" of the fruit contains a seed | Source

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 Chinese star anise plant in an illustration from 1833
The Chinese star anise plant in an illustration from 1833 | Source

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.

Green, unripe star anise fruits from a farm in China
Green, unripe star anise fruits from a farm in China | Source

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.

References

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

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        These are interesting uses for star anise, chanroth! I especially like the idea of adding it to curry. Thank you for the comment.

      • chanroth profile image

        chanroth 

        4 years ago from California, USA

        That's very interesting information! My mom uses star anise to put in the curry. And grandma use to make tea with it and my grandpa he put it in vodka with other herbs, it become medicinal.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        All of these uses sound like good ideas, Imogen. Star anise is a versatile spice! Thanks for the visit.

      • Imogen French profile image

        Imogen French 

        4 years ago from Southwest England

        I bought some star anise at Christmas to put in my home made mulled wine, but not sure what to do with what's left. The pot pourri might be a good option to use it up, the creme brulee looks rather appetising too.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment, Peg. Star anise is a beautiful spice. It's very useful, too!

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

        Interesting information on the Star Anise. What a beautiful flower it makes. I had no idea how to use this spice or where it came from. Thanks for the recipes and useful tips.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Carolyn. I like the flavor of anise, star anise and fennel. I think they're all delicious!

      • CarolynEmerick profile image

        Carolyn Emerick 

        4 years ago

        very nice! that apple crumble looked delicious! my boyfriend likes anise.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, Stephanie! I appreciate your visit.

      • StephanieBCrosby profile image

        Stephanie Bradberry 

        4 years ago from New Jersey

        Excellent and informative article!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, gryphin423. Star anise is an interesting spice to experiment with!

      • gryphin423 profile image

        gryphin423 

        6 years ago from Florida

        I've always been curious about star anise, thanks for the informative hub!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the comment and the votes, Peggy. Yes, the crumble does look easy to make. Star anise gives a delicious flavor to desserts likes crumbles.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        6 years ago from Houston, Texas

        What an interesting hub regarding the star anise. I would have had no idea that the Japanese kind could be harmful...so good to know! Often star anise is also mixed into potpourri. That first video with the apples and apricots and crumble on top looks easy enough to make and looks delicious. Thanks! Rated up, useful and interesting.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, b. Malin. Yes, Asian markets do sell interesting things! The produce market near my home sells packaged Asian foods as well as fresh produce. This is one place where I get my star anise. Thanks for the comment.

      • b. Malin profile image

        b. Malin 

        6 years ago

        What an Interesting Hub Alicia, so many Facts to consider. I believe I have tried Anise as tea under the name "Chinese Star". We have a big Asian Market a few towns over from mine in NJ, which sells some fascinating things. Thanks for sharing.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, breakfastpop. Thanks for the comment. I'm very lucky to have places that sell star anise within walking distance of my home!

      • breakfastpop profile image

        breakfastpop 

        6 years ago

        Thanks for the info. I have been trying to buy Star Anise but have not been successful.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Peter. Spices add such interesting tastes to meals. It's fun to write about them.

      • Peter Dickinson profile image

        Peter Dickinson 

        6 years ago from South East Asia

        Informatitive and fascinating. Thank you.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi again, Attikos. I love the licorice flavor of both anise and star anise - they're two of my favorite spices! I haven't grown anise before, but I'm planning to next year.

      • Attikos profile image

        Attikos 

        6 years ago from East Cackalacky

        Thanks, Alicia. I've grown the herb anise, and it works for me in the kitchen. I don't think star anise would survive in my location's climate. As long as the flavor is there, I suppose it doesn't matter.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit and the comment, jazirhaneef.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Attikos. Anise seeds come from a plant called Pimpinella anisum, which is in the Apiaceae family of flowering plants (which used to be called the Umbelliferae family). This family contains carrot, celery and fennel as well as anise. Its leaves, flowers and fruits look very different from those of the star anise plant.

        The biological classification of star anise is in a state of flux at the moment, with different biologists having different ideas about how it should be classified. However, everyone agrees that it isn't a member of the Apiaceae family, since its structure is very different from that of anise. Anise is a herb, while star anise is a shrub or a tree.

        Although star anise and anise aren’t closely related biologically, they both contain anethole, which gives them their licorice taste.

      • jazirhaneef profile image

        jazirhaneef 

        6 years ago from India

        Thanks for sharing

      • Attikos profile image

        Attikos 

        6 years ago from East Cackalacky

        What's the difference between star anise and plain old anise you can grow in your herb garden?

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