Star anise is the seed pod from the fruit of the Illicium verum plant, an evergreen shrub native to Southwest China.
The star anise pod, which is shaped like a star, has an average of eight points, each containing a single pea-sized seed. Both the seeds and the pod are used in cooking and contain a sweet, potent flavor that is reminiscent of licorice.
Because of similarities in their flavor and names, star anise is often confused with anise, though the two spices are unrelated. These two plants are not from the same plant family – star anise is from the magnolia whereas aniseed is from the parsley family. The seeds also differ in appearance; star anise seeds are larger and a dark reddish-brown color while anise seeds are smaller and look more like fennel seeds.
The star anise pod is picked before it ripens and then dried in the sun, turning it a deep brown or rust color. The distinctive flavor is derived from anethol, the same oil found in anise seed giving both a licorice taste.
It is grown in China, Indo-China, and Japan and sometimes referred to as Chinese star anise. Star anise is used in Chinese cooking; it is one of the main flavors in Chinese five-spice powder and is also used to make tea and as a seasoning.
In Vietnamese cuisine, star anise is part of the well-known soup, pho. In Western cultures, it is more often used to flavor liqueurs, such as absinthe, sambuca, and pastis, as well as baked goods like cookies and cakes.
Star anise originated in southern China and has been used as a medicine and spice for more than 3,000 years. During the late 1500s, star anise came to Europe via an English sailor and soon after was traded along the tea route from China through Russia. Because of its sweet flavor, star anise was mainly used in jams, syrups, and puddings and later substituted in commercial drinks for anise seed.
Star anise contains a high level of antioxidants, such as linalool, quercetin, thymol, terpineol, caffeic acid, anethole, kaemferol, and coumaric acid, as well as a significant amount of iron. Also contained in star anise are smaller amounts of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. The other active compounds and organic acids, such as shikimic acid, fats, and dietary fiber, also provide star anise with a few extra health benefits. The calorie count in star anise is also quite low, with only 23 calories in 1 tablespoon of whole star anise fruit.
One of the most popular pharmacologically relevant attributes of star anise is its shikimic acid content. Shikimic acid is a compound with strong antiviral capabilities. In fact, it’s one of the main active ingredients in Tamiflu, a popular medication for the treatment of influenza. It is currently the primary source of shikimic acid used for pharmaceutical product development.
Some test-tube research has also shown that the essential oil of star anise may treat other types of viral infections, including herpes simplex type 1.
Star anise is a rich source of the flavonoid anethole. This compound is responsible for the spice’s distinct flavor and offers potent antifungal benefits. Research has found that trans-anethole derived from star anise may inhibit the growth of pathogenic fungi in certain edible crops.
Its anti-fungal properties are part of natural remedies for fungal infections, including Athlete’s foot, ringworm, Candida, and other common strains.
The most notable mineral found in star anise is iron, and a single tablespoon of these small fruiting bodies contains roughly 13% of your daily recommended amount. While eating an entire tablespoon of these fruits is unlikely, the concentration of iron can still help boost red blood cell production.
Some research has revealed that star anise extract is as effective as antibiotics against multiple drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria. This may be particularly useful for future development of new antibiotic medications.
Star anise is generally considered safe but may be contaminated with highly toxic Japanese star anise. To ensure the purity of the spice you’re buying, always double-check its source to avoid accidental intoxication.
How to Buy
Star anise can be purchased whole or ground with the whole being more difficult to find; grocery stores specializing in Asian or Indian cuisine would be the best option. Ground star anise can be found in most grocery stores either in the spice aisle or Asian ingredient section.
If purchasing whole star anise, make sure the pods are not broken. Whether whole or ground, the star anise should smell very fragrant.
How to Store
Store both whole or ground spice in an air-tight container away from moisture, heat, and sunlight. Whole star anise will remain fresh and vibrantly flavored for about one year, whereas the ground spice will begin to lose flavor after about six months. Toasting the ground spice before using sometimes heightens the flavor.
How to Cook
Whole and ground star anise are used differently in cooking.
The whole pods are added to braised dishes, soups, and stews to infuse flavor. The pods do not soften as they cook and therefore cannot be consumed. The pods are very strong in flavor and if added too early to a recipe can overwhelm the other ingredients.
Ground star anise powder is used similarly to other ground spices. Powdered star anise begins to lose its flavor shortly after it is ground up, so the best method is to buy whole star anise and grind it as needed. The pods and seeds can be ground together. The ground spice is much easier to work with and is added to a recipe similar to any other spice.