The Super Powers of Five-Spice Powder
Get to know this savory and sweet spice blend.
Whether you call it Chinese five-spice powder or simply five-spice powder, this spice blend is one you'll want to stock in your cabinet. Its warm, spicy-sweet flavor is common in Chinese cuisine, and used often in braised and roasted meat, poultry, and fish dishes, as well as marinades and rubs. Once you start using five spice in your cooking, you'll likely find yourself adding it to all kinds of recipes—its complex taste livens up everything from cookies to cocktails.
Five-spice powder's origins are unclear. Are the five spices meant to represent the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), are they the five flavors (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty), or are they just five spices that go really well together? That, of course, introduces another question: What are the five spices? That's open to interpretation. Many versions are made with Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and fennel, but others skip the peppercorns in favor of ginger or white pepper. Some include just the requisite five spices but others incorporate six or seven. Star anise and cinnamon tend to be the dominant flavors, while cloves, fennel, and peppercorns usually take a back seat.
How to Use Five-Spice Powder
Whichever combination you use—whether store-bought or homemade—the mix is fantastic on roasted meats, especially fatty ones such as pork, beef ribs, and duck. But those aren't the only dishes that can benefit from this robust spice blend. The more you cook with five-spice powder, the more you'll realize its versatility. Deputy food editor Greg Lofts uses five spice in a range of applications, from seasoning meats before cooking to spicing up gingerbread cookies, pumpkin pies, and other baked goods that traditionally call for pumpkin pie spice or other blends that include warming spices like cinnamon, clove, and ginger. Try it on roasted nuts, toasted pita bread, citrus salads, or even in cocktails (five-spice powder works especially well in a Whiskey Sour or a Dark and Stormy).
If you're making your own five-spice powder, don't feel you need to strictly adhere to a particular formula; most Chinese chefs have their own preferences when it comes to ingredients and ratios. Keep in mind that star anise and cinnamon are the front runners; round them out with some combination of cloves, cinnamon, fennel, and peppercorns. Adjust your final blends as you see fit!