How we tested
Chinese five-spice powder adds a kick that offsets richness in both sweet and savory recipes. In traditional Chinese cooking, the five elements of the cosmos—earth, fire, metal, water, and wood—are represented by five-spice powder. Most blends from China include cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel, and Sichuan pepper. (Companies selling five-spice powder in America substitute white or black pepper for Sichuan because for many years its import was banned due to a citrus canker.)
We tried the updated version of our former favorite, as well as five additional brands, in warm sweetened milk (where its flavors would stand out) and in Chinese Braised Beef. We also had an independent lab test the overall potency of each sample by measuring the total volatile oils. And since the piney, licorice notes and tangy heat of star anise make it a key player, we also had the lab analyze levels of anethole, the compound that supplies its flavors and aromas.
The winner and runner-up from our tastings were in the middle range for overall potency and high in anethole; for tasters, this translated into complex flavor in which star anise predominated but still allowed other spices to come to the fore. Our favorite won for “lots of licorice” and “anise notes,” plus a “piney,” “woodsy” taste and an “aromatic” flavor that contributed a “nice kick” of heat. A spokesman said that for some of the spices, the manufacturer uses cryogenic grinding, in which liquid nitrogen cools the ground spices, to preserve volatile oils. Our runner-up is also a supermarket brand, and while this company said it does not use cryogenic grinding, its “five-spice” actually contains seven spices, lending it plenty of “earthy,” “complex” flavors. For an aromatic kick in our Chinese Braised Beef, or any sweet or rich dish, our winner will be our go-to five-spice blend.