Diet and Nutrition

What Is Fennel?

What Is Fennel?

Key Takeaways

  • Fennel is an herb grown for its strongly flavored leaves and seeds, and all parts of the fennel plant can be eaten.
  • It is a renowned herb, vegetable, spice and medicinal plant.
  • Fennel seed benefits include better digestion and protection of the skin.

What is fennel?

Fennel is an herb grown for its strongly flavored leaves and seeds. It is a renowned herb, vegetable, spice and medicinal plant. It has a flavor similar to the spices anise and licorice. Fennel is a common food item; it is not rare nor expensive, unlike vanilla pods and saffron.

Fennel’s closest relative in the plant kingdom is the carrot plant. Although best known for its seeds, all parts of the fennel plant can be eaten. The seeds and pollen of fennel plant are potent aromatics, and its leaves and bulb are used as a vegetable.

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Fennel is a popular herb in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, Arabic countries, India and China. It is often used in Greek, Italian, Turkish, Indian and Chinese cuisines. The fennel plant is an erect herb, growing shoots of hollow stems similar to grasses, and it grows up to a height of five feet. It is propagated by seed. The plant has frond-like leaves like dill, and it bears tiny yellow flowers on the topmost part. Fennel grows in almost all continents except in the polar and desert regions, and sometimes considered as a weed and grows wild.

Types of fennel

There are two kinds of fennel, sweet and bitter, and both are used as herbs. One variety, called Florence fennel (known as Italian or finocchio), is also grown for its bulb (actually swollen leaf bases) and used as a vegetable.
Certain alcoholic drinks contain fennel, such as fennel liqueur, Kummel (a local sweet liqueur in Germany), absinthe and fennel-infused vodka. Alcohol with vodka tends to have hints of sweet licorice or anise flavor.

In case you want to know, the scientific name of fennel is Foeniculum vulgare. Foeniculum comes from the Latin word meaning 'hay'. Fennel has been used since ancient times and was known to ancient Greeks and Romans. Interestingly, ancient peoples regard fennel not just as food, but also as legendary plants. In the Greek mythology story where Prometheus stole the first fire from gods, he used fennel to conceal the embers to give to mankind. Followers of the Greek god Dionysus are known to use fronds of fennel to make a staff called Thyrsus that symbolizes fertility. The name fennel itself may have originated from the site of Marathon (also the site of Battle of Marathon), whose meaning is ‘place of fennel'. Anglo-Saxons, the migrants from Europe that settled in the British Isles in the 5th century, held fennel as sacred. 

In the Middle Ages, fennel is a renowned medicine, spice and a magical substance; people centuries ago used to hang it over doors as protection against evil spirits and witches. Fennel is known as a ‘diet herb’ as its leaves were chewed to relieve pangs of hunger. Much later, Puritan churches have fennel seeds available during long services to reduce rumbling stomach.

Fennel also has use as a beverage, mainly in fennel tea, and as flavoring to alcoholic drinks. Fennel tea is made from seeds or leaves and is consumed for time immemorial. Fennel is also used as an ingredient and flavoring to the alcoholic drink absinthe, which was popular in Europe during the 18th century.

Today, fennel is a popular spice and vegetable. You will be surprised by how many things you can do with fennel. Fennel seeds are often added to soups, salads or baked in bread. Fennel bulbs are often sauteed and eaten as a vegetable. It is also used to make herbal medicines. Fennel is a delicious vegetable and aromatic that should always be in your kitchen.

What you can do with fennel seeds?

Fennel seeds are fragrant and have a warm, sweet flavor similar to anise. They can be used in sweet and savory dishes. Many dishes make use of fennel seeds as a flavoring; one is the popular Italian sausage. You can add fennel seeds to homemade meat recipes such as meatloaf and sausages. It is very suitable for fish, and can be added to fish stock or used to season steamed or grilled fish. Fennel seeds are also a good flavoring for cheeses such as cheddar and cream cheese.

You can use fennel seeds to add new flavor to pasta sauces, stews, casseroles and pickles. When used in savory dishes, it imparts a hint of licorice without the sweetness. Fennel seeds are also good as seasoning. You can rub them on cuts of meat or add them to vegetables. You can also sprinkle fennel seeds on baked goods and they can be made into tea.

For maximum flavor, the usual practice is to toast whole fennel seeds in a frying pan, and then remove from heat once fragrant. Crush toasted fennel seeds in a mortar-and-pestle before adding them to food. For baked goods, fennel seeds should be added to the dough before baking. They are best used when green, which means they still have potent flavor and are not yet old.

In India and Pakistan, fennel seeds are coated with sugar and mixed with other seed spices to make Mukwhas, which are eaten after a meal to freshen the palate. In China, powdered fennel seeds are an ingredient in the very popular five-spice powder, used as rub or flavoring in pork, chicken, duck and seafood. In Saudi Arabia and nearby countries, fennel seeds are often added to flavor local breads. Greece has a variety called wild fennel, which is known for its distinct aroma with a hint of bitterness and is added to pies and stews.

Fennel nutrition

Fennel seeds are somewhat high in calories containing 345 per 100 grams, typical in seeds eaten as food, but you probably will not eat that much in dishes. The seeds contain 3% to 6% essential oil, mainly composed of anethole and smaller quantities of fenchone, limonene, camphor, alpha-pinene, caffeic acid and hydroxybenzoic acid. Anethole is also responsible for the aroma of anise.

Fennel seed benefits include better digestion and protection of the skin. Fennel seeds are traditionally used to promote lactation in mothers after giving birth. They are also used to promote menses in women with painful menstruation and relieve upset stomach, indigestion and bloating. They may help expel gas in the digestive tract. Skin creams with extracts from fennel seeds may be helpful for hirsutism (excess body hair) and may protect the skin from ultraviolet radiation. Extracts from fennel seed are sometimes used as insect repellent. In many areas in India, fennel seeds are consumed to aid digestion and promote weight loss, aside from freshening the breath and restoring taste after a very spicy meal.

How to cook fennel

There are several ways to cook fennel. Note that all the parts of the fennel plant are usable. The roots can be boiled to make tea. Even the dried discarded stalks of the fennel plant still have a culinary use, as it can be burned in the fire that gives distinct sweet aroma to roasted meat or fish.

Fennel is commonly found in markets as fennel seeds, which are sold whole or ground. Whole fennel seeds are often lightly crushed or broken before use. You can add fennel seeds to any dish. You can also add fennel seeds, ground or whole, into meat dishes or fish. Because it has a flavor similar to licorice or anise, fennel is also a good spice in sweet bread or cakes, including waffles and cupcakes. You can also add roasted fennel seeds to puddings, sweet gruel, or custards. Alternatively, you can toast the seeds and eat them in a similar manner to mukwhas as they do in South Asia.

Fennel bulbs are typically eaten as vegetables. They can be stir-fried, sauteed, baked, or grilled, or even eaten raw. Sauteing mellows the flavor but preserves sweetness. You can slice and stir fry them with some olive oil, and add some sugar and fennel seeds, and continue to fry until caramelized. Another classic way to cook fennel bulbs is to parboil the sliced flesh in salted water and then bake with cheese on top. A salad popular in Israel calls for chopped fennel bulbs, parsley, sumac, salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Fennel leaves or fronds have delicate anise flavor. They are prepared by washing and chopping the leaves and stalks. You can use whole fennel leaves as a bed and add flavor to roast fish, meat or vegetables. Chopped fennel leaves are also a nice addition to risottos, stews, casseroles and soups. They can also be used to flavor sauces and vinaigrettes. Fennel leaves boiled with carrots, onions, celery, and then pureed, makes a wonderful soup. Young leaves can be used as garnishings or added to salads. In Arab countries, fennel leaves with onions are made into an egg omelet.

You may not know that fennel pollen is perfectly edible as well; it has a good licorice flavor for its size. Wild fennel flowers are more potent. Fennel pollen is somewhat gritty rather than powdery and has a yellow color. It can be added to any food for a strong, sweet licorice flavor. It is a good spice for fish and chicken dishes, and gives a nice twist to roast pork. Fennel pollen is also nice with roasted vegetables and soups. Make your puddings, cookies, loaf cakes and cupcakes more fragrant and aromatic by adding a dash of fennel pollen before serving. A dash of fennel pollen makes ordinary white bread and butter taste a lot better. Fennel pollen is widely used in Italy, but you can find it in some spice stores or through the internet.

How can you cook fennel bulbs?

Fennel bulbs are especially popular in Europe where they are used as vegetables in Italian, French and English cuisines. They are very often used in Italian cookery. The bulbs have white flesh with a crisp, slightly sweet taste and a hint of anise aroma. They are slightly less in flavor than celery. The flesh can be eaten raw or cooked. If you wish to eat them raw, you can simply slice the flesh and drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice.

You may not know this, but fennel bulb flesh can be cooked with pasta. It pairs well with pasta with lots of cheese or cream, but you may add it to tomato-based sauces if you wish. You can even put slices on pizza crusts and in pizza, and it pairs well with strongly flavored meats like sausages and pepperoni.

You can also sprinkle sliced fennel bulb flesh over or under pork, fish, chicken or veal before roasting. On the other hand, it can be added as a vegetable to stews or casseroles. Fennel pairs well with vegetables, especially ones with gentle flavor such as carrots, salad greens (except kale), mint, bell peppers and shallots. One good recipe calls for adding sliced fennel bulb flesh to lentil soup, and then serve with bits of bacon and chopped fennel leaves.

When looking for fennel bulbs, choose ones that are small, pale green and blemish-free with the leaves and roots still intact. This indicates they are crisp and fresh. Preparing fennel bulbs is simple. First, trim off the stalks and cut the bulb in half. Cutting right away makes it easier to peel the tough outer layers, and that is it. You can use the stalks and skin of the fennel to make vegetable stock. Prepared fennel bulbs are best cooked right away for best flavor.

In terms of nutrition, fennel bulbs are very low in calories. Each fennel bulb only contains 73 calories (234 g) and almost zero fat, so it is a good vegetable to eat if you want to lose weight. The vegetable is among the best sources of dietary fiber, which is helpful in balancing blood sugar levels and making you full for longer. Fennel bulbs are rich in vitamin C and folate, as well as important dietary minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese.

What is fennel tea?

For a twist, you might want to try fennel tea. It is made by steeping fennel seeds or leaves in hot water. Fennel tea is a used as a remedy since ancient times, used to relieve indigestion, coughs, stomach upset and other bowel problems like flatulence. It is also given to mothers with babies to help promote the flow of breast milk.

Steeping fennel in hot water helps release its essential oils. You can use fennel seeds to prepare tea. Simply crush the seeds lightly using a kitchen knife (one to two tbsp. are enough) and put them in a mug of hot water. Leave it for 5 to 10 minutes. It is better to prepare fennel tea from whole seeds than using mixes. Some people simmer fennel roots to make tea. You can also add some bruised fennel leaves for additional flavor.

Always use fresh fennel seeds for tea; brown or old fennel seeds don’t have much flavor. Fennel tea has very gentle, rather aromatic, anise or licorice flavor. You can add honey or sugar if you want some sweetness.

How to make roasted fennel

Want a tasty vegetable in your meal or when hosting friends? You should consider serving roasted fennel, which is very easy to make. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, slice the fennel bulb into thick slices, and arrange the slices on a baking tray. Drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and sprinkle with salt and pepper before putting it in the oven or on a grill. Cook each side for 25 to 30 minutes. You can also roast fennel bulbs together with other vegetables and aromatics. Save some fennel leaves and use as garnish.

Some good additions to roasted fennel, for a different flavor, include garlic, mustard, Parmesan, anchovies or black olives. Roasting fennel bulbs mellows the flesh and imparts a lovely toasty flavor. Roasted fennel suits well with any dish. Since it is savory and aromatic, it is perfect with light-flavored dishes such as fish, chicken or cream-based pasta.

Fennel seed substitute

Fennel and its seeds are very versatile spices. You can eat them, add them into tea, add to dishes, or improve the taste of desserts. They are also valuable for medicinal purposes and as household remedies.

However, you may not always have fennel to use in cooking. You can substitute anise seeds and licorice for fennel seeds since they share somewhat similar flavors. Note that anise and licorice have a stronger flavor than fennel, so don’t use a lot. You can also use caraway in a pinch. You can use dill, which also has a similar flavor to fennel seeds and leaves. Other fennel seed substitutes include cumin seeds and coriander seeds.

Fennel seeds have a unique, sought-after gentle flavor. Almost all fennel seed substitutes are too strong or have potent taste notes on their own, so be careful and add gradually.

Fennel is a healthy and tasty vegetable, and the seeds have wide applications in cooking. It is a unique fact that all the parts of the plant are usable, which is unusual in plants. You don’t have to become a fully-trained chef to prepare and use fennel in cooking. Fennel is also a valuable flavoring for alcoholic beverages, notable is absinthe which is again becoming popular. Today, fennel is an indispensable spice and vegetable in modern cuisine.