Know Your Spices: Anise Seed

Anise seed (not to be confused with star anise or fennel seed!) upgrades dishes and desserts with an herbal, sweet taste that feels fancy yet familiar.

Anise seed on a white plate

Lori Rice

You know it when you taste it, but how much do you really know about sweet, herbal anise seed? 

Whether it flavors crunchy biscotti, sweet Italian sausage, or an Ouzo cocktail, anise seed lends a liquorice-like taste to a wide range of foods found across an equally wide range of cuisines, including Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern and South Asian. Just a small amount can make your dishes and desserts taste a little fancy—but not too fancy. 

Anise seed in a jar

Lori Rice

What Is Anise Seed?

Anise seeds are the seeds of the anise plant (Latin name Pimpinella anisum), which is a flowering annual that’s native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. (Fun fact: Anise is in the same plant family as parsley, carrots, and celery!) 

The seeds, whole or ground, taste sweet—but that’s the beginning. Just a small amount of the oval-shaped, green-ish brown seeds adds a liquorice-like flavor that’s refreshing, fruity, and bitter at the same time. 

Star Anise vs Anise Seed

Yes, it’s easy to confuse this low-key but powerful spice with the other liquorice-like spice that shares its name…but anise seed is not the same thing as star anise. In fact, they’re not even related. 

Star anise is a star-shaped pod (actually, there are usually eight points, so it’s more flower-like than star-like) that grow on evergreen shrubs native to Southwest China. Both the pods and the seeds they contain are used in cooking. The whole pods can flavor soups, like pho, stews, and braises, but they do not soften when cooked, so they cannot be eaten. They can also be used in sweeter applications, like chai or mulled wine. Ground star anise is one of the ingredients in Chinese five-spice powder. 

Fennel Seed vs Anise Seed

Fennel, on the other hand, is in the same family as anise. Fennel seeds look similar to anise seeds, but they’re a little smaller, and both contain an organic compound called anethole, which is where their similar taste comes from. Fennel seeds taste slightly sweeter and a little milder than anise seeds.

Anise seed on a white plate

Lori Rice

Whole Anise Seed vs. Ground Anise Seed

Both whole anise seeds and ground anise seeds are common in baked goods and savory dishes. Go for the whole seeds when you’re looking for extra texture. 

Stuck with one when your recipe calls for another? One teaspoon of whole anise seeds equals about one teaspoon of ground. Spice master and cookbook author Lior Lev Sercarz, owner of New York City spice shop La Boite, says small spices like anise seed (or mustard seed or celery seed) are close to a one to one ratio when measuring ground versus whole. 

Substitutes

As you might expect, even though anise seed is not the same as star anise and fennel, either of the latter spices can be used as a substitute for the former.

Anise seed in a jar and on a white plate

Lori Rice

Where to Buy

You can find whole and ground anise seed in most grocery stores and spice shops, and also online. As with all spices, it’s best to buy in smaller quantities so that you’re buying fresh more often. Do not let your spices sit around in the cabinet for more than a year! They will lose their flavor! 

How to Store

Likewise, as with most spices, anise seed should be stored in airtight containers in cool to moderate temperatures to maintain freshness. It will keep for about six months.

How to Cook and Bake with Anise Seed

There are many ways to cook with whole and ground anise seed—sweet and savory. The whole seeds add nuance to sauces and braises, as well as spice blends to use as a crust on meat, chicken, or fish. A favorite is the Egyptian spice blend dukkah, which combines cumin, coriander, fennel or anise seed, and sometimes other nuts and sesame seeds for a dynamic spice blend that you’ll want to sprinkle on everything. (See this recipe for Grilled Dukkah-Crusted Chicken with Lemon Hummus).

You can also mix in the seeds, raw or toasted, into ground meat when making sausage, as a flavoring in pickle brine, or even if you want to spice up meatballs or burger patties. 

A note on toasting: Toasting all spices brings out their flavor and aroma. Toast over low-medium heat in a dry pan, and as soon as you start to smell the nutty aroma, remove from heat. Your recipes should call for either toasted or raw seeds, but if you’re unsure, go with toasted seeds for savory recipes and raw for sweeter recipes.

And speaking of the sweet stuff, for all its savory depth, anise seed is perhaps best known for flavoring desserts. Italian biscotti probably comes to mind immediately, but anise seed can also flavor other cookies, like German pfeffernüsse, pie dough, pie filling, and any manner of breads. 

If adding to pie dough, add between 1/2 teaspoon to one tablespoon of seeds into the dry ingredients before forming the dough. Get creative with it and think of anise seed as a delicate but unmistakable way to add a sophisticated spin to whatever you’re baking. Grown-up Fig Newtons, anyone? 

Here are a few recipes for getting started. If you see fennel seeds instead of anise seeds, swap anise in, one for one.