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When I open my spice cabinet, I'm bombarded by aromas. Curry spices, sweet spices, souring agents, dried and fermented fruits, herbs, and chiles all compete for my attention. But one spice never fails to grab it: star anise. It's alluring and potent, the exotic idealized. To taste star anise is to understand the full power of spices—their depth of flavor and their near-endless complexity. Cardamom may be called the queen of spices, but this is the crown jewel.
To set the record straight, it's not the same thing as anise seed. Though they share similar flavor compounds, they're only distantly related. Star anise is far more potent and nuanced, and it's the only one I keep around. It's native to China, where it's been used as a medicine and culinary ingredient for millennia. You can easily identify its eight-pointed star shape and its rich licorice-like aroma. But there's a lot more going on with star anise than plain-Jane licorice. A deep whiff reveals luxurious headiness along with subtle sweet and herbal notes. Hold in that inhaled breath and the scent will coat your throat, leaving a therapeutic calm.
How to Use Star Anise
I love star anise for its versatility. It functions equally well in baked goods, chilled desserts, sauces, and red meats. A tiny petal can add whole new dimensions of flavor of aroma, making it a perfect secret ingredient for a wide range of dishes that would otherwise feel too straightforward. Citrus, for example, receives a welcome twist from star anise, and as do well-browned red meats. In more liberal amounts, star anise is notoriously overpowering, but that only goes to show its culinary potential.
In Chinese cuisine, it's one of the principal components of five spice powder, a spice rub common on roast meat like duck. It's also a staple of red braising, in which fatty meats are simmered in soy sauce, rock sugar, and aromatic spices. But really, I can't recommend the citrus pairing enough. Vinaigrettes and citrus-based sauces can be immeasurably improved by its addition.
Most of us are likely familiar with star anise through desserts, and with good reason. Its flavor easily infuses into fat- and water-based liquids (a mark of distinction among spices), making it equally at home in butter- and fruit-based desserts (no stranger around here. I don't know why it's not a more common part of the baking spice pantheon of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and clove. It makes for a killer gingerbread or spice cake and adds intrigue to apple pie.
Where to Find Star Anise
Star anise is common in Chinese markets for pennies an ounce. Most spice merchants also carry it, such as The Spice House and Penzeys, both for $4 an ounce. This is definitely a spice to purchase whole—it'll last for years in star form, and you can break off petals as needed. They're large enough that you shouldn't have much trouble picking them out before serving.