Star Anise Vs. Anise Seed: SPICEography Showdown

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Star anise and anise seed are two spices that not only sound similar, they have similar flavors. Their flavors are enough alike that some cooks consider interchangeable. Both spices are versatile enough to stay in the background as they do in some spice blends and savory dishes or to play the starring role as they do in liqueurs. If you are trying to decide between them, there are some important factors to consider. While they have a lot in common, there are some key differences. What are those differences? How do you use them? We will consider these questions as we compare them in another SPICEography Showdown – star anise vs. anise seed.

How do star anise and anise seed differ?

Despite the similar names, anise (also known as aniseed and anise) are two different plants. They both come from different parts of the world with anise being Mediterranean or Egyptian in origin and star anise being from China. Both have a similar licorice taste because they both contain anethole, an essential oil that is responsible that is a major contributor to their respective flavors. In addition to the licorice flavor, star anise offers a mild bitterness and an herbaceous quality that helps to differentiate its flavor from that of anise seed.

The spices consist of seeds that are very different in appearance with the anise seed being a small schizocarp about 1/8 to 1/4-inch-long and the seed of the star anise being contained in a star-shaped pericarp that usually about an inch in diameter. The plants from which each of these spices come are also different in appearance since star anise comes from an evergreen tree that can grow up to about 30 feet tall; anise seed comes from a bush that is typically under 3 feet tall. The anise bush can be used as an herb.

Can you use one in place of the other?

Since both spices impart a similar licorice flavor, you can usually get away with using one in place of the other. That said, such a substitution is not always ideal for every dish. Star anise will have to be ground before you can use it as an anise substitute, which can be time-consuming if you do not have a spice or coffee grinder. In addition, star anise is generally used whole with the pericarp removed and discarded before the dish is served. Anise seeds are much smaller and may be difficult to remove from a dish. In dishes that require star anise to be fried before being taken out and discarded, it may not be possible to use an anise seed substitute in the same way since both whole and ground seeds may be more likely to burn.

What are the best ways to use star anise? Anise seed?

In Chinese cooking, star anise is used whole or ground. It is arguably the most important ingredient in the most famous Chinese spice blend: five spice powder. Similarly, it is one of the stronger flavors in the garam masala blends that you are most likely to find in the US. Star anise also shows up in the pho, the popular Vietnamese soup and you can use it in many sweet applications including apple and pumpkin pies.

Anise seed primarily used for sweet applications and breads including Italian biscotti. Ouzo, sambuca and anisette are just some of the liqueurs flavored with it. Its savory applications range from Italian sausage to pasta sauce.