Why Anise Seed, Fennel Seed, and Star Anise aren’t Interchangeable

Each of these spices has a profile distinct from the others—and subbing one for another can make a big difference to your dish.

Published Oct. 14, 2020.

The licorice flavor and aroma of these three spices make them popular in all sorts of applications, from spice rubs to soups and braises to baked goods and desserts. Their licoricey character comes from high concentrations of the compound trans-anethole—the main flavor compound in licorice root. But don’t assume that similarity means these spices are interchangeable. Each comes from a different plant (and in the case of star anise, an entirely different scientific order) and features a different array of secondary compounds that give it a profile distinct from the others.

When we tried each spice in a biscotti recipe calling for anise seed, tasters easily picked out differences. They also quickly identified differences when we subbed in fennel and then anise seed in broth for pho originally calling for star anise. Distinctions were harder to detect in Italian sausage meatballs (the recipe called for fennel seeds), but that’s because the dish contained many other spices. Since you risk changing the character of a recipe if you sub one for the other, we don’t recommend it.

Anise seed (Pimpinella anisum)

Alias: aniseed 

Profile: earthy and licorice-y

Native to: Egypt

Dominant flavor compound: trans-anethole (about 90%)

Secondary flavor compounds: pseudoisoeugenol-2-methylbutyrate, estragole, p-anisaldehyde

Star anise (Illicium verum)

Profile: licorice-y with herbal, lemony, woody notes

Native to: Northeast Vietnam and Southwest China

Dominant flavor compound: trans-anethole (about 90%)

Secondary flavor compounds: estragole, limonene, alpha-trans-bergamotene

Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare)

Profile: licorice-y with piney, camphor-like notes

Native to: Southern Mediterranean

Dominant flavor compound: trans-anethole (about 90%)

Secondary flavor compounds: estragole, fenchone

Flavor Compound Key

The different nuances in their various flavor compounds make anise seed, fennel seed, and star anise taste quite distinct from one another.



citrusy, woody, tealike


licorice-y, herbal


minty, piney, camphor-like


lemony, citrusy




sweet, floral, vanilla-y




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