by Susan Belsinger
One of the main things that I love about the summer season is the many wild and wonderful flavors in the herb garden. While my chervil and sweet cicely have come and nearly gone since they have set seed, dill and fennel are showing out, and anise hyssop, basil, and tarragon are coming on strong in my zone 7, Maryland garden.
When Agastache was Herb of the Year in 2019, I figured I’d explore some of the other herbs in this flavor category. Anise hyssop is the most popular of this genus—it is not related to anise (Pimpinella anisum), or hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) for that matter—so I am not sure how it got this moniker. It does, however, smell and taste somewhat like anise. When we speak of anise flavor, a few other herbs come into play: fennel and licorice. These three herbs have similar aromas and tastes due to a few shared chemical constituents. And these three herbs are used to describe the flavor profiles of some other well-known herbs.
Although there are probably a few other herbs that have some flavor of anise, fennel, or licorice, I will discuss the ones listed below that I am most familiar with. (Many of the flavor profiles are excerpted from The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker).
Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
Parts used: leaves and flowers; mainly seeds
Chemistry: primarily (E)-anethole; germacrene D, beta-bisabolene and estragole.
Flavor profile: When crushed between your fingers, anise seeds smell sweet, mildly fruity, and then like licorice candy. If you pop a tiny anise seed in your mouth and bite it between your front teeth, you get an immediate hit of black licorice candy flavor. At first, it might seem slightly sweet, then a bit spicy; the aftertaste has a definite bitterness. I find anise seed stronger in flavor than fennel seed.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Parts used: leaves and flowers
Chemistry: primarily estragole; germacrene D, limonene, (E)-ocimene; some forms contain isomethone and pulegone.
Flavor profile: While commonly called anise hyssop, the odor is more similar to French tarragon, though sweeter, with a hint of basil. The foliage and flowers taste similar to the aroma—sweet, with the licorice of tarragon and basil—and just a bit floral.
Basil (Ocimum spp.)
Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds
Chemistry: primarily estragole and linalool; some forms contain eugenol, 1,8- cineole, beta-caryophyllene.
Flavor profile: The fragrance of sweet green, bush basil is heady with a clean, green aroma with anise hyssop and mint, followed by hints of citrus, cinnamon, and clove. The flavor is well rounded, full of spice, licorice, and mint, and is just slightly pungent. The fragrance of most Thai basils is a big, rounded aroma of spice that is sweet with licorice and some mint. They have a strong, perfumed flavor with hints of licorice, mint, and spice.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
Parts used: leaves and flowers
Chemistry: primarily estragole, some 1-allyl-2, 4 dimenthoxybenzene.
Flavor profile: At first sniff, chervil leaves have the fragrance of parsley, with a tarragon-like undernote. And indeed, many gourmets have described the flavor as resembling a refined combination of French tarragon and parsley, with perhaps a slight suggestion of pear-like fruit.
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds
Chemistry: carvone, limonene, dill apiole, alpha-phellandrene.
Flavor profile: Dill seeds (actually fruits) and foliage, known as dill weed, smell of a spicy caraway and fennel, and are somewhat pungent with undertones of mint and citrus. The fruits smell more pungent than the foliage, which tends to be more “green.” Anyone familiar with dill pickles knows the flavor of dill, which is a combination of parsley and fennel with a bit of celery, and a pungent bite with a slight burnt taste, especially so in the seed, along with oily resinous overtones.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds
Chemistry: (E)-anethole, estragole, fenchone, limonene
Flavor profile: The aroma is sweet and green and aniselike. The flavor of fennel is similar to anise though more full and earthy, sweet, and herbaceous. The fruits (commonly called seeds) of fennel are pleasant-tasting, mild, sweet, and herbal.
French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’)
Parts used: leaves
Chemistry: primarily estragole; some contain (Z)-anethole, beta-ocimene.
Flavor profile: The first whiff of tarragon leaves picks up a pleasant anise aroma followed by a combination of green grass or freshly cut hay, with a mere suggestion of mint and licorice. The rich anise-like flavor of tarragon is sweet, mildly grassy, and a little peppery. When you bite into a leaf, it numbs the tongue slightly, which is caused by the presence of the chemical methyl chavicol.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Parts used: root
Chemistry: glycerrhizin, hexanoic acid, hexadecenoic acid, acetol, propionic acid, as well as various alkylpyrazines, flavonoid glycosides, sugars, and starch.
Flavor profile: Dried, wrinkled, brown licorice roots are very sweet—supposedly 50 to 150 times sweeter than cane sugar—with very little flavor except for the glycyrrhizin. According to Tucker and DeBaggio in The Encyclopedia of Herbs: The root is often confused with commercial licorice candy—people think that anise, fennel, and tarragon smell like licorice—although this is incorrect. Most licorice candy is flavored with anise oil and not even sweetened with the licorice root, so the aforementioned herbs smell of licorice candy and not the licorice root itself.
Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida)
Parts used: leaves and flowers
Chemistry: primarily estragole; (E)-anethole, methyl eugenol.
Flavor profile: Mexican tarragon (also called sweet marigold, sweet mace, and Mexican mint marigold) has an entirely different aroma from that of other marigolds; it is superficially similar to French tarragon though without the full, warm herbaceous smell of that classic culinary herb. Although it has hints of anise, it is a bit more pungent with notes of mint.
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
Parts used: roots, leaves, flowers, seeds
Chemistry: primarily (E)-anethole in both fruits and foliage
Flavor profile: Sweet cicely, also called garden myrrh, sweet-scented myrrh, or fern-leaved chervil, has a long history of being cultivated for its sweet, anise-scented foliage, seeds (really fruits), and roots. The flavor is also sweet, tasting of anise with a green herbal note.
Some chemicals are common to a variety of plant foods, which results in comparable flavors between these foods. The two main chemical constituents that give these similar flavored herbs their smell and taste are estragole and anethole. According to Tucker and DeBaggio in the Encyclopedia of Herbs, “Anethole is very similar in structure to estragole (methyl chavicol) in tarragon and safrole in sassafras, and so these oils smell similar but not identical.” Anethole is a terpenoid, and is found in anise and fennel, and also dill, which it is named after (Anethum graveolens) even though it is a much smaller amount found in dill than anise and fennel. It is soluble in oil or alcohol, though cannot be fully diluted in water. Estragole is a phenylpropene, which is a natural organic compound, also called methyl chavicol. This natural organic compound provides the main essential oil component of anise seed and star anise, basil, and tarragon. Of interest, Cis-pellitorine is an alkamide, which occurs naturally in tarragon and is what gives a tingling, tongue-numbing sensation called paresthesia (of the tongue). I find this occurs in tarragon and some basil leaves.
In the Kitchen
Although anise and fennel seeds have slightly different flavor characteristics—they can be substituted for one another in most recipes—I find aniseed more assertive in flavor and fennel seed milder and a bit sweeter. They are wonderful in baked goods from breads and muffins to cakes and cookies. They are used in pickles, salads, soups, sauces, stews, with meats (especially sausages), fish, poultry, vegetables, grains, and cheeses. Though they are used in many cuisines, I find them often featured in Indian and Italian foods, and spice blends like Indian panch phoron, curry powder, Chinese five spice, and herbes de Provence. There are many liqueurs and cordials made with anise and fennel seeds.
According to https://www.spiceography.com in their post titled “Fennel Seed Vs. Anise Seed: SPICEography Showdown” they answer the following question “When should you use anise seed and when should you use fennel seed?” “While they are often interchangeable, using one as a substitute for the other is not always ideal. True anise seed (as opposed to star anise) is delicate and sweeter so that it is more at home in sweet dishes, candies, and liqueurs than fennel seed would be. For example, anise seed is the best option for two Italian favorites: biscotti and pizzelle. Fennel seed can be used as a substitute in those baked goods, but it is not ideal. The flavor of fennel seed is a little more delicate and a little woodier than the flavor of anise seed, which means that it works better in the background as a supporting flavor note that accentuates and enhances other spices. Fennel seed is better for marinara sauces and other savory dishes that contain multiple spices where it will show up, but not dominate the way anise seed would.”
Foliage of these aromatic plants are used in recipes around the globe and will brighten a salad, soup, sauce, any egg dish and are tasty with pasta, grains, vegetables, fish, and fowl. Flowers have a surprising amount of flavor due to concentrated essential oils—use them as a garnish on salads or beverages—or put a flower umbel in your pickle jar. I use leaves and blooms in making herb butters, vinegars, and syrups. The famous French blend of fines herbes contains the quartet of tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chives; however, if tarragon doesn’t do well for you or the chervil has gone to seed, why not substitute leaves of anise hyssop, sweet cicely, or Mexican mint marigold or fennel fronds?
Celebrate these anise, fennel, and licorice flavored herbs; grow these flavorful plants in your garden and get creative in the kitchen!
Be sure to check out my trio of videos on capturing the essence of herbs and preserving their flavor—they’re available on the HSA website to watch at your convenience. Go to https://courses.herbsociety.org/courses/gathering-and-preserving-the-herbal-bounty to register for these free videos.
Anise Hyssop and Almond Butter Cookies
These are a crisp butter cookie with a crunch of almond and a hint of anise. They are tasty with a cup of tea or are lovely accompaniments to fresh seasonal fruit or ice cream. For a heartier, healthier cookie, I use a scant cup of whole-wheat pastry flour in place of one of the cups of unbleached flour.
You can substitute 2 teaspoons fennel seed or 1 generous teaspoon anise seed for the anise hyssop flowers in these cookies—be sure to grind the seed with the sugar not quite to a powder—leave a little texture. For using other fresh herbs in place of the Agastache, finely mince a scant 1/4 cup of fresh basil or Mexican mint marigold leaves and/or flowers.
Makes about 5 to 6 dozen cookies
1 cup sugar, preferably organic
1/4 cup anise hyssop florets removed from their stems
1 extra large egg
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached flour
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 ounces almonds, lightly toasted and finely chopped
Combine the sugar and the anise hyssop in a processor and pulse until blended.
Add the egg and process for about 60 seconds. Add the butter and vanilla and process for another 60 seconds.
Mix the flour and salt and add it to the processor. Process for about 20 seconds until most of the flour is incorporated. Add the almonds and process until just mixed; do not overprocess.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather it into a ball. Divide the dough into 3 parts and roll each portion in plastic wrap into a cylinder about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Chill for about 1 hour, until firm, or freeze for about 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Slice the dough slightly less than ¼-inch thick with a sharp knife. Place the rounds at least 1/2 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets.
Bake for about 12 minutes, changing the position of the baking sheets halfway through baking, until the edges are just golden brown. Remove from baking sheets immediately to cool on racks. When cool, store in airtight containers.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author, except 2) Pimpinella anisum (anise) (Abdullah.alkhalaf1 via Wikimedia), 4) Ocimum sp. (basil) (Chrissy Moore), and13) Fennel seeds (Howcheng via Wikimedia)
Belsinger, Susan. Flowers in the kitchen. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1991.
Belsinger, Susan and Arthur O. Tucker. The culinary herbal. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2016.
Coleman, Gert, editor. Agastache, Herb of the Year™ 2019: Anise hyssop, hummingbird mints and more. Jacksonville, Florida: International Herb Association, 2019.
Gernot-Katzers spice pages. Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from http://gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com/
Gruenstern, Jodie. 2021. Anice, fennel, licorice – what’s the difference? Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from https://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/anise-fennel-licorice-whats-the-difference/
Orr, Stephen. The new American herbal. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2014.
Reddit: forum (Internet). 2014. What makes licorice, anise, and fennel have such similar tastes, when they are not closely related? Accessed July 7, 2022. Available from https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/2gog6j/what_makes_licorice_anise_and_fennel_have_such/
Spiceography. 2022. Fennel seeds vs. anise seed: SPICEography showdown. Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from https://www.spiceography.com/fennel-seed-vs-anise-seed/
The Good Scents Company. 2021. Flavor descriptors for anise. Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from http://www.thegoodscentscompany.com/flavor/anise.html
Tucker, Arthur O. and Thomas DeBaggio. The encyclopedia of herbs. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2009.
Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing, or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist,” Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste, and sight.
Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of The Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 – 2020). Her latest publication, Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press), co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com.