The pungent licorice flavor of star anise is central to many Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. Its role is significant enough that you are unlikely to arrive at an authentic tasting dish without it or an effective alternative. Unfortunately, this spice is sometimes difficult to find and can be expensive. If you are without star anise, below are several effective substitutes that you can try.
Your best bet: Chinese five-spice powder
Chinese five-spice powder is an excellent substitute mainly because it contains star anise. Not only is star anise one of the ingredients, it is the most assertive spice in the blend. When you taste five-spice powder, you are tasting mostly star anise with the other spices playing a complementary role in the background.
As a result, using five-spice powder in place of star anise can actually improve some dishes since you get the benefit of several other spices that complement the star anise. Use one and a half teaspoons of five-spice powder for every 2 teaspoons of ground star anise that your recipe requires.
A decent second choice: Anise seed alone
Despite the fact that star anise and anise seed have “anise” in their names, they are not related. However, they do add similar pungent licorice notes to dishes.
You should note that star anise has a much stronger flavor when compared to anise seed. Whole anise seeds are particularly mild while the essential oil is the most potent. Anise seed essential oil is about eight times stronger than whole anise seed. When replacing star anise with anise seed, use twice the amount of anise seed that your recipe requires for star anise.
In a pinch: Fennel seeds and anise seed
Fennel seeds are another spice with a licorice-like flavor. Its licorice flavor is even milder than that of anise seed but it is sweeter. The two together may, therefore, be able to make a reasonable approximation of star anise. Since both of these spices are weaker than star anise, you will want to use more when using them as a substitute. Use one and a half times as much of the pair as your recipe requires for star anise.
Allspice is an option despite the fact that it lacks the licorice notes. It can provide a strong sweetness and an exotic element to your dish and will work in many dishes that require star anise. Using a little sugar to go along with the allspice is a good way to make its flavor more closely resemble that of star anise.
Cloves are another potential star anise stand-in. Like allspice, cloves do not have star anise’s licorice notes; however, adding some can provide a significant amount of sweetness along with some of the bitter notes.
The combination of caraway seeds with tarragon can add a sufficient licorice kick to replace star anise. Note that caraway seeds are strong and can be bitter so be careful when using them. Start with a small amount and work your way up to the flavor you want.
If the licorice flavor is what you want and you have none of these alternatives, consider using some licorice root as your star anise substitute.