Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Fennel – an herb or a vegetable?

When you think of Fennel, do you think of the white bulb you can buy in the produce section or do you think of the little seeds that some of us have in our pantries? They are both from the same plant but have different uses. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Native to the Mediterranean region, the fennel plant has a white bulb at the base and feathery fronds at the top. It produces seeds that are dried into a spice. Even the plant’s pollen can be gathered and used as a finishing spice.

Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay

Even though all of this is from the same plant, there are different types of fennel. Florence fennel is the one you will see in the store with its large bulb and sold as a vegetable. There is another variety, sweet or common fennel, that is a perennial plant grown for its fronds and seeds. It does not have a bulb. The above-mentioned pollen is normally harvested from the wild variety of this type of fennel. It grows many places but is especially abundant in California.

All parts of the fennel plant are edible. The white bulb of the Florence variety can be eaten raw or cooked. It is often used in ways similar to onions or celery. It can be very fibrous so it is best to slice thinly cross-wise or finely chop. The fronds can be used as a fresh herb and sprinkled on your dish.

The taste is licorice- or anise-like. Because of this, it is often confused with the anise plant. However, these are two different plants. They may look similar but anise does not have a bulb. Another difference is that the only edible part of the anise plant is its seeds, while the entire fennel plant is edible. In flavor, fennel has a less intense licorice flavor.

Grocery stores may mistakenly label fennel bulbs as anise bulbs. I have even seen it labeled as “Anise Fennel”. However, if it is a large white bulb, it is fennel, not anise.

When shopping for fennel, choose bulbs that are firm and white with no bruising or browning. The bulbs should be large in proportion to the stems and fronds that are attached. If put into a paper or plastic bag and stored in the crisper drawer, it should keep for up to two weeks. If you have cut the fennel, wrap it in plastic before putting in the refrigerator to minimize browning.

Image by flomo001 from Pixabay

The seeds of the fennel plant can be bought in most grocery stores. It is a warm spice that can be used in both sweet & savory dishes. It is especially popular in Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern cooking. One place you will commonly find it is in Italian sausage. It is also often used in spice blends and dry rubs. Many infuse it in hot water as a type of tea. It can be used whole or ground. If whole, crack the seeds slightly before using to release the oils. As with the fresh fennel, it has a sweet and subtle licorice-like taste.

Fennel pollen is very expensive, just below saffron and vanilla. At my favorite spice store – Savory Spice – it sells for $35 per ounce. As mentioned earlier, it is harvested from wild-growing fennel. Its appearance is of golden-colored granules. Its flavor is said to be complex. One source describes its flavor as “licorice and citrus and a honeyed, marshmallow-like sweetness”. Due to the flavor profile and the cost, it is best to use as a finishing spice as a garnish over veggies, meat, pasta or added to a dip for bread.

Do you use fennel? I use it occasionally. One of my favorite uses is in this Peach & Fennel Slaw from Food & Wine, perfect for the upcoming summer months. I hope you enjoy it.