The Warm Spice That Makes Beef Taste Even Meatier

When you think about highlighting the rich flavor of beef, you may think of adding soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or even mushrooms to the mix — but what about spices? While chili powders bring heat, paprika smoky sweetness, and garlic powder allium richness, there's a specific spice in your pantry that can elevate the beefy flavor of your dish: star anise.

A warm spice that's commonly featured in Chinese five-spice powder, star anise packs an intensely sweet licorice-like flavor thanks to a chemical compound known as anethole. But how does such a sweet spice make the meat taste even meatier? When cooked with an allium counterpart, like an onion, star anise releases a sulfur compound that accentuates the savory meat flavor of whatever dish you add it to. This alchemical flavor reaction has been used by the Chinese in countless recipes to beef-up (pun intended) the meaty taste.

The meaty combination of star anise and onions

To try this meaty update on your next meat dish, consider grating half a star anise and sautéing it with one thinly sliced onion before adding it to a recipe. You'll want to caramelize the onion slices in a little bit of oil or butter to take out the bite of the raw onion, but otherwise, it's a fairly low-fuss upgrade for your beef dishes. You'll need to be sparing with how much star anise you use, as the spice can overpower the other flavors and can even numb your tongue. Start conservatively with your amount and then taste as you go. 

As for which recipes to incorporate this hack into, think of beginning with Asian-inspired dishes, which often rely on star anise to flavor their food. Chinese spare ribs, Indian vindaloo, and Vietnamese beef stew (Bo Kho) are each beefy dishes that welcome the star anise and onion combo. Other miscellaneous beef dishes will work as well, like a long-simmering braised beef shank, slow-roasted osso buco, or even an all-purpose beef stir-fry. Or, flip the script and use this star anise-onion trick in a meatless dish, like an all-mushroom pasta sauce or tofu braise. That magical savory note will add meaty gravitas to your favorite vegetarian dish.