Cloves Vs. Star Anise: SPICEography Showdown

Cloves and star anise are both pungent spices that sometimes get used in the same dishes. Both spices are essential for bakers and for home cooks who like to prepare Chinese food. Learn what makes these spices similar and how they differ in the SPICEography Showdown below.

How does clove differ from star anise?

Cloves and star anise come from different plants. Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree in the myrtle family called Syzygium aromaticum. The clove tree is native to Indonesia’s Molucca Islands. Star anise comes from the Illicium verum tree, which is native to Vietnam and China.

Cloves and star anise have different appearances. Clove buds consist of a narrow stalk that culminates in a ball at the end. The narrow stalk is called a calyx, and the ball consists of sepals. Star anise gets its name from the Illicium verum tree’s star-shaped fruit. The fruit of the star anise tree has six to eight points. Each point contains a single seed. Star anise seeds are oval-shaped with a glossy brown exterior.

Cloves and star anise have different flavor profiles. Cloves have a pungent flavor with elements of allspice and menthol. There is also a slight bitterness to cloves, with a warmth similar to that of cinnamon. Like its namesake anise, star anise has a strong licorice flavor. In the background of the star anise flavor profile, there are notes of clove and cinnamon.

If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?

Cloves can work as a substitute for star anise in some applications, but only in the sense that they may pair equally well with some of the same ingredients. You may be able to get away with it in some dishes because it won’t ruin them. Examples of where the substitution will work best include dessert spice mixes. Cloves will not be a good substitute if you want a spice that tastes exactly like star anise. If star anise is one of the main spices in your dish, replacing it with cloves will change the flavor profile in a striking and immediately noticeable way.

Star anise probably won’t ruin a recipe that calls for cloves; however, you won’t be able to make the switch with no one noticing. The difference in flavor will be obvious and may not always work. The two spices are different enough that the licorice notes of star anise may stand out even if only a little of it is used. Like cloves, you are more likely to get away with the substitution if you are making a dessert as opposed to a savory dish.

How should you use cloves, and how should you use star anise?

Clove is one of the main spices in the pumpkin pie spice blend and in Chinese five-spice. Some recipes for gingerbread will also use cloves, as will some jams. Cloves are an important part of the masala chai flavor. You will sometimes see whole cloves studded into hams and ground cloves included in dry rubs for grilled meat.

Star anise is best known as the main spice in Chinese five-spice and is used in the better-known versions of Chinese chili oil. You will also see it in other Chinese dishes, like red-braised pork. While not traditional, it’s a great addition to apple pie.