A spice as fragrant—and as beautiful—as star anise deserves a more prominent spot on our spice shelves. The star-shaped spice is the dried fruit of a small Asian evergreen tree that’s a member of the magnolia family. Harvested when it’s still green and unripe, it’s dried in the sun, where it develops its red-brown color and a sweet, warm flavor that’s reminiscent of licorice, clove, fennel seed, and aniseed (although it’s botanically unrelated to any of these spices).
How to use it:
Star anise is used primarily in Vietnamese and Chinese cooking. Much like bay leaves are used in Western cuisines, whole stars are used to infuse soups, stews, and braised dishes, like the Asian-Style Beef Short Ribs. Ground star anise is the dominant ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, which also includes Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seed, cinnamon, and cloves. A little ground star anise goes a long way; try adding a pinch to a stir-fry or substitute it for aniseed (use about half the amount of aniseed called for). Star anise also complements sweet foods, especially ones that include fruit, such as Cranberry Sauce with Star Anise & Port. Also try adding it to pear-poaching liquid.
How to buy and store it:
Some supermarkets carry whole or ground star anise, but your best bets for the freshest spice are Asian markets, natural-foods stores, and mail-order spice houses. Penzeys Spices offers a 1-oz. bag of whole star anise for $3.19. If you need ground star anise, you can grind the whole stars (including the seeds) in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, but commercially ground will be more finely textured than home-ground. Like all spices, star anise should be stored in an airtight container away from light and heat. Whole stars will stay fresh for about two years; ground star anise lasts about one year. To check the freshness of a whole star, break off a point and squeeze it until the seed pops. If you don’t immediately smell the distinct arroma, it’s likely past its prime.