What It Is, How to Use it & Substitutions

Chinese star anise is a fragrant and flavorful spice used in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking, as well as in some teas and other beverages. It’s notable for its star shape and licorice-like flavor and scent.

Many cooks are starting to use star anise for the first time due to the popularity of Vietnamese pho soup. However, understanding how much the recipe calls for and knowing what else to do with it can be tricky. We’ve compiled this guide to star anise to help you learn a little about it. We’ll talk about the spice itself and cover some possible alternatives in case you don’t have any.

What is star anise?

Star anise actually comes from the fruit of the Illicium verum tree found in areas of Vietnam and China. Chinese star anise is common in cooking and has some medicinal properties. Star anise oil is used for a number of different things, including soaps and skin creams.

Chinese star anise is distinguished from Japanese star anise, or Illicium anisatum, which is highly toxic.

Need to stock up? Buy star anise here.

What does star anise taste like?

Star anise is often said to have a “licorice-like flavor,” but don’t let that scare you off if you hate licorice. Its similar to anise and fennel in that it has notes of licorice yet that flavor doesn’t dominate dishes when you include it. It offers a bit of spiciness and fragrant notes and its one of the key components that gives pho its unique aroma and depth of flavor.

Its very potent — much more so than anise — so its best to use carefully. It can overpower a dish if you use too much, but having the right balance creates a unique flavor in a number of dishes. It pairs well with tomato-based sauces, meats, and citruses.

What does it mean when the recipe calls for 2 pieces of star anise?

One common source of confusion if you’ve never used star anise before is interpreting the recipe.

Star anise is star shaped and holds seeds in the petals. So, you might ask, if something calls for two star anise (or two pods or pieces), does that mean two seeds? No, it means two full stars.

Two star anise

This can be particularly confusing for some pho recipes, which often call for 4 or 5 star anise. But they do mean 4 or 5 actual stars!

What are some star anise substitutes?

Star anise has a unique flavor profile, so it can be a bit tough to find an alternative.

No star anise at all? There are a few other possibilities if you are in a pinch:

  • Chinese five-spice powder: This is the very best option as a substitute, primarily because it has star anise in it.
    • For each star, use 1/2 tsp of powder
    • For ground, sub 1.5 tsp of five-spice for 2 tsp of star anise powder
  • Fennel or anise seed: These two mimic the licorice-y quality of star anise, but they don’t have the same depth of flavor. They’ll still work as a fair substitute in a pinch.
    • For every 2 star anise, use 1 tsp of seeds
  • Caraway seeds: These have some of the licorice notes, so caraway can be a fair substitute. Start with 1/2 tsp of seeds per star anise, but taste often.
  • Cloves or allspice: While not a great substitute, cloves or allspice can work in a pinch to add a bit of spice. Use sparingly.

How much ground star anise equals one pod?

You can use ground star anise in place of whole: 1 star anise is the equivalent of 1/2 teaspoon ground star anise.

If your recipe calls for ground star anise, you can ground up whole: 2 pods equal about 1 tsp of ground. 

How long can you keep star anise?

While you can technically keep it much longer, whole star anise is good for about a year. It will start to lose flavor at that point. Because its so important in the dishes that call for it, you should be sure to use it up or toss it by the one-year mark.

Make sure to keep it in an air-tight container and keep it away from light and heat.

Ground star anise, once opened, will start to lose its potency after about 6 months.

What to do with star anise?

Star anise pops up in many Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, especially soups and broths. However, it can be used in lots of other ways to give recipes a unique flavor.

It pairs well with tomatoes, so try adding a bit to your tomato-based sauces or soups.

It can add some interesting depth to roasted veggies.

Try making tea — like chai — and adding a bit of star anise.

Add a touch to braised beef dishes.

Once you understand the taste and how it affects certain dishes, start experimenting! Star anise can add some unique and delicious notes to all sorts of dishes. Just remember to use it sparingly and taste often — star anise can be very overpowering.

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