In the culinary arts, anise (pronounced "ANN-iss") refers usually to the seeds of a plant with aromatic leaves and stems that taste like licorice, fennel or tarragon. While the leaves of the anise plant can be used as an herb, it's mainly the seeds that are used in cooking. Sometimes called aniseed, the seeds are used as a spice, either ground or whole. Aniseed is used in a various baked goods and desserts, for example, Italian biscotti, which is made with anise extract.
Anise seeds are also frequently used in sausage making (i.e. charcuterie).
Anis Flavored Alcohol
Anise seeds are also the basis for a number of alcoholic beverages, including anisette, ouzo, sambuca, and absinthe. You may have noticed that these beverages all share a reputation for being rather, well, let's say potent. They also have the unique characteristic of changing color or crystallizing when mixed with other liquids. Anis flavored alcohol is known for having a distinct licorice flavor which is certainly not for everyone. The slight candy like flavor has made them popular as after dinner or dessert drinks. They can also be used to add flavor to coffee.
Are Anis and Star Anise the Same?
Despite its similar name, anise is not related to star anise, which is another spice from a different family of plants. Nor is it the same thing as fennel, although the two do have a similar flavor, and the plants are somewhat similar looking.
They're from the same family of plants (along with caraway, parsley, cilantro and others), but they're not the same species. In general, fennel is served as a vegetable, while anise is used as a spice (i.e. in seed form, either whole or ground).
A Spice or an Herb?
You've probably heard the term spice and herbs used interchangeably but they actually refer to different parts of the plant.
A spice is any part of a plant, other than the leaves, which, when dried, is used as a flavoring ingredient in cooking. That means seeds (of which anise is one example, along with cumin, coriander, mustard and many others), and also bark (such as cinnamon), fruit (peppercorns, vanilla), roots (horseradish) or flower buds (cloves). Herbs, whether dried or fresh, are the leafy part of a plant.
Homemade Anise Extract
If you have some anise seeds and some spare vodka, you can make your own homemade anise extract, which is what you'de use for making your own biscotti. If you fancy a shot of espresso, a dash of anise extract will give it some extra gusto.
You'll need to sterilize a 4-oz jar. Add one teaspoon of anise seeds to the jar, then half a cup of vodka. Seal tightly and store it someplace cool and dark for 2–3 months. Then strain out the seeds by pouring through cheesecloth into another bottle or jar. Of course, if you don't have a few months to spare most grocery stores sell small bottles of anise extract. It's sometimes kept in the baking aisle.