In each installment of this occasional series, we ask (and answer) questions about the less familiar items in the spice aisles—most importantly, what the heck you do with them. So far, we’ve looked at nigella seeds, annatto and galangal.
This time, it’s star anise. My first stab at an answer to the title question—what do you do with it—might have been: Turn it into earrings! Or maybe add it to a bowl of decorative potpourri. But star anise isn’t just the prettiest spice in the rack; its flower-shaped pods add essential flavoring to popular dishes from several cultures.
What is it?
Star anise is the seed pod from an evergreen tree, Illicium verum, that grows in China. It’s unrelated to regular anise, though they share a similar flavor. Star anise one of the five spices in Chinese five-spice blends, along with cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and ground fennel seeds. It’s one of the signature flavors in the Vietnamese noodle soup pho. Beyond the kitchen, it’s also a vital component of the influenza-fighting drug Tamiflu—although scientists have figured out a way to manufacture its active ingredient, shikimic acid, in recent years.
What does it taste like?
Star anise has a mild and fragrant licorice flavor. Max Falkowitz at Serious Eats describes it as having a “luxurious headiness along subtle sweet and herbal notes.” It’s subtler than the medicinal taste of black jelly beans or my least favorite liquor, Jägermeister, but it can still overpower a dish if used immoderately.
What the heck do I do with it?
The options are wide open, but there are a few classic combinations that are a good place to start. Chinese poached chicken with star anise, from Food & Wine magazine, uses an aromatic broth spiced with star anise, ginger, cinnamon and scallions. Steamy Kitchen gives step-by-step instructions for making a beef pho recipe from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. In neighboring Thailand, some versions of condensed-milk-sweetened iced teas are flavored with star anise and other spices.
Desserts are also a natural place to use the licorice-flavored spice, and it works especially well with traditional fall and winter recipes. It adds another dimension to ginger cookies, like these triple ginger ones spiked with lemon, from 101 Cookbooks. A Life (Time) of Cooking uses it in a novel twist on baked apples. And Bobby Flay’s pumpkin bread pudding (via Food Republic) is topped with a caramel apple sauce spiced with star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.