Fennel is a vegetable you may not be familiar with, but there’s a lot to love about the bulbous root veggie, from its anise flavor to its health benefits.
If you’re not a fan of black licorice then you might be someone who approaches fennel with a certain amount of skepticism. But while fennel is a primary flavor component of the “love it or hate it” candy, it is also one of the most diverse and transformative plants to cook that has a bevy of health benefits.
Fennel is visually recognizable by its pale green bulb, slender stalks, feathery fronds, and sprays of tiny yellow flowers, all of which have uses in the kitchen. Indigenous to Mediterranean regions with dry soil, fennel remains a staple in Italian, French, Greek, and Middle Eastern cooking. Its sweet anise flavor provides the aromatic backbone to many a roast, braise, salad, and baked treat. It’s also one of the main components used in making absinthe. (Don’t get too excited though—eating large quantities of fennel won’t lead to enlightening hallucinations.)
Health Benefits of Fennel
More than a flavorful delicacy, fennel has a long history of improving health and well-being as an indispensable herbal medicine and spiritual cure-all. According to Our Herb Garden, fennel seeds were stuffed into keyholes during medieval times to ward away freely-roaming ghosts, while Greeks used fennel tea to aid in weight loss. While said fennel benefits may be steeped in superstition (pun intended), others are proven. Low in calories yet high in essential nutrients like potassium, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, fennel can treat indigestion and constipation, boost your immune system, cure bad breath, and even help prevent macular degeneration.
Most importantly, fennel is delicious. Below, a thorough guide on how to get the absolute most out of fennel.
How to Use Fennel Bulb
Florence fennel, which is called finocchio in Italian, produces the largest bulb of all fennel varieties while different types of wild fennel produce smaller, flat bulbs that are equally aromatic in flavor. Crisp, sweet, and over 90 percent water, fresh raw fennel makes a texturally satisfying addition to slaws and salads like this Fennel and Jicama Salad.
Mueller Austria V-Pro Multi Blade Adjustable Mandoline Slicer, $29.99 on Amazon
For shaved fennel salads, a mandoline ensures thin and even slices.
However, the bulbous vegetable also lends itself to low and slow savory cooking like braising and roasting which brings out its natural sweetness and offsets its slightly bitter taste. It’s the ideal layered vessel for fats like butter and olive oil and pairs beautifully with onion as a base for braised pork chops.
Don’t Toss Fennel Stalks
Most recipes tell you to trim the fennel stalks, not specifying that these fabulous fibrous greens are also edible and delicious—think celery, but better. Try them shaved in salads, chopped up in soups, thrown into a juicer for a nutrient-rich morning pick-me-up, or as a bed for roasting salmon. If your taste buds are not feeling completely exhilarated by these options, simply toss them in the freezer and save them for when you’re making stock. I repeat again: There’s no reason not to keep them.
What About Fennel Fronds?
These wispy, feathery leaves are the answer to your money-saving garnishing prayers. Their delicate anise-forward flavor is perfect for finishing any savory dish, plus, they often come attached to the stalks and bulbs so it’s basically like getting free herbs. If you opt for juicing the stalks, throw the fronds in as well. If you’re making this easy basil pesto (or any pesto for that matter) don’t hesitate to swap out some of the greens for fennel fronds. Or if you’re looking for a way to elevate your homemade brunch game, think about making ejjeh, a Middle Eastern-style herb omelette,which is the perfect vessel for leftover fresh fennel fronds.
Yes, You Can Even Use the Seeds
Fennel seed is a defining flavor in countless foods we love like rye bread and Italian sausage. These tiny brown seeds (like their bulb counterpart) pair extraordinarily well with meat, especially pork. Try making a spice mix like this one from The Spice House; rub it all over a pork shoulder, and roast in a covered Dutch oven. Or simply add some ground fennel seed to your meatballs. In India and Pakistan, mukhwas is a post-meal sweet snack, natural breath freshener, and digestive containing roasted fennel seeds. Or try this garam masala, an essential spice mixture in beloved Indian dishes like chicken tikka masala. (And read up on the difference between fennel seeds and fennel pollen courtesy of our community.)
Tips for Cooking with Fennel
- If you’re still finding the taste of licorice too overwhelming when using raw fennel, simply soak the sliced fennel bulbs in water for 30 minutes before using to downplay the flavor.
- Conversely, if you love the taste of licorice, try making your own fennel digestif—this recipe uses both the fronds and the seeds. Yet another reason not to throw away your fennel fronds!
- Go ahead and try making your own fennel tea too. Fennel is believed to help relieve gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach muscle spasms caused by Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and IBS. It’s also been known to cure flatulence and promote breast milk production in nursing women.
- Don’t be afraid to layer fennel flavor. If a recipe calls for a fennel bulb, try enhancing the overall fennel taste of the dish by adding fennel seed to your seasoning, diced stalks to your mirepoix/holy trinity, and fronds to garnish. Such technique should be applied when making the Sicilian classic Pasta Con Le Sarde.
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Header image courtesy of Seksak Kerdkanno / EyeEm / Getty Images