The strong, fragrant and sweet qualities of anise make it a perfect addition to many recipes. Often they call for the actual seeds, but it is also possible to use anise oil or extract to impart the flavor. For the most part, the difference between oil and extract is slight. However, some important differences and a few facts should be kept in mind before making a purchase.
What Is Anise?
Anise can be used as an herb or a vegetable, according to Botanical.com's helpful article. Anise should not be confused with fennel or star anise. Anise has been used since at least the time of the Romans, and is said to have originated in Egypt and Asia. The anise plant grows to between 1-1/2 and 4 feet tall, with white fruit and a greyish-green seed pod (often called an "anise seed.")
By boiling the parts of the anise plant in water and condensing the vapors, it is possible to obtain anise oil, as explained by Robert L. Wolke in the Washington Post, "Oils vs. Extracts." Anise oil is used in chewing gum, toothpaste, soap and cough medicines. It is also the primary flavoring ingredient in the liqueurs Ouzo and Absinthe, among others. Anise oil is often added to licorice, because their flavors complement each other.
Anise extract is not as pure as anise oil. According to Wolke, McCormick brand anise extract is actually 73 percent alcohol. This is due to the method by which anise extract is obtained. Instead of gathering and condensing the vapors of the actual plant, an extract is made by dissolving the oils in alcohol and other substances (including water, glycerol and propylene glycol).
Differences in Flavor
Understandably, the flavor of anise extract will not be as strong as that of anise oil. If anise is a main component of a recipe (say, in the case of an anise liqueur), it is best to use anise oil. According to Foodsubs.com, anise oil can be substituted for anise extract. If your recipe calls for 4 tsp. of anise extract, try to use 1 tsp. of anise oil as a substitute. Keep in mind that anise extract also evaporates more quickly than anise oil, which is another reason to make sure you substitute correctly.
Difference in Price
The prices are virtually identical, and here's why: You may be surprised at the small size of anise oil containers, but keep in mind that usually only a drop or two is needed, compared to teaspoons of the extract.
If you buy anise essence, try to find out what exactly its components are. "Essence" is a very broad term, and anise essence could be an oil, extract, or even an animal or vegetable substance, as noted at Fantes.com's article, "Flavors, Extracts and Oils." Also be aware that anise oil is often marketed under the title "oil of pimpinella anisum."