Herbs and spices can be one of the secret ingredients that will make you a better cook, but they can also be pretty confusing. Every once in a while, you come across a spice that makes you question your entire culinary knowledge base. Like anise: What exactly is it, and can you substitute star anise or fennel if you don’t have any on hand? Find out!
What is Anise?
Anise (also called aniseed or sweet cumin) is the seed of the Pimpinella anisum plant. It belongs to the Apiaceae family, which also produces carrots, celery and parsley. While the plant’s leaves and roots are also edible, it’s most well-known for its small, brown seeds. They look very similar to fennel seeds, although they are significantly smaller.
The seeds can be used whole, or they can be ground into a powder. They have a sweet, fragrant aroma with a strong, licorice-like taste. It’s that strong flavor that makes anise a love-it-or-hate-it kind of spice. If you’ve ever tasted alcoholic beverages that contain ouzo, sambuca or pastis, you know what I mean! That flavor makes it very versatile, though, as it can be used in savory applications like baking breads or making savory Italian sausage, as well as for baking sweet cookies and cakes.
Are Anise and Fennel the Same Thing?
Anise is commonly confused with two very distinct ingredients: star anise and fennel. The first confusion comes from the similarity in name. Although star anise and aniseed share a common word, they couldn’t be more different. Star anise (Illicium verum) is the fruit of a small evergreen tree in the magnolia family. It’s most often used in Chinese five-spice and while it also has a licorice-like flavor, it’s intense and pungent when compared to aniseed.
Fennel, on the other hand, is often confused with anise because they have similar looking seeds. Like anise, fennel is also from the Apiaceae family, making it related to carrots, dill and anise. Fennel grows into an edible vegetable, and its fronds look almost exactly like dill. The seeds have a sweet, licorice flavor that’s more robust than anise. It’s also a popular component in sausage making, and it’s an integral ingredient in Chinese five-spice blends and chai teas.
How to Bake with Anise
Have some fun with anise’s licorice flavor by making our favorite icebox cookies. If you really want to let the flavor shine, lightly toast the whole aniseed before adding them to the cookie mix. Or, play around with ground anise with this biscotti recipe. If you have anise extract in the pantry, you can also try your hand at making homemade candy.