What Is Fennel and How the Heck Do You Cook with It?

what is fennel

Fennel, a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, is one of the unsung heroes of the vegetable world. Though often overlooked by home cooks, this versatile ingredient is beloved by chefs for its pleasantly sweet, fresh flavor and mild aromatic character. In other words, if you typically pass this bulbous vegetable by in the produce aisle, you’re missing out. But what is fennel, anyway? Our guide to this flavorful plant will tell you everything you need to know, including how you can incorporate it into your cooking.

What Is Fennel?

Fennel: A flowering plant species native to the Mediterranean that belongs to the same family as carrots. But what does that mean to you? Can you swap a carrot in when a recipe calls for fennel? Not exactly. Certainly, one can see the familial resemblance in the fronds—the delicate green feathers that sprout from the stem of the fennel plant and look very much like a carrot top—but there are some striking differences between the two veggies. For starters, fennel looks a lot more like a leek who’s been hitting the gym extra hard than it does a carrot. And if you’re going by the fronds, it’s also easy to mistake dill for fennel. For fennel newbies, take our advice and turn your attention to the other end of the plant instead. If you see something bulbous at the end of a feathery stalk, you’re looking at fennel.

What Does Fennel Taste Like?

This bulb boasts a distinct and delicious flavor profile that sets it apart from the other vegetables in its family. Specifically, fennel is known for its anise flavor (despite being a totally different plant) but that doesn’t mean you have to like licorice in order to enjoy it. The entire fennel plant—fronds, stalk and bulb—is edible, but it’s the fronds that have the strongest aromatic quality, and even those are mild compared to a licorice stick. The bulb itself is sweet, bright and herbaceous with a subtler hint of anise as compared with the fronds.

Not your cup of tea? Don’t write fennel off just yet: Once the bulb has been cooked, nearly all that licorice flavor melts away (or by the work of some kind of magic, blends seamlessly into the background). Heat turns fennel into something melty and sweet, in much the same way that slow cooking transforms an onion.

How Is Fennel Used?

So, what can you do with fennel? Quite a lot, it turns out. Fans of the anise flavor can make use of the fronds by chopping them and adding them to pesto, salad dressing, pasta sauce and stock. The fronds can also be used as a garnish—sprinkle them on anything from grilled meats to omelets for a touch of freshness that promises to wake up the palate. And if you’re not put off by a mild licorice flavor, you should absolutely chomp on a slice of raw fennel bulb—it’s fantastic and refreshing—or add thinly-shaved slices to a salad.

If it’s a mellower flavor you’re after, fennel is divine when simply roasted with a little bit of oil, salt and pepper and then served alongside roast chicken, pork or fish. The bulb is also delicious when chopped and added to a mirepoix for soups and stews or sautéed with Italian sausage for a hearty pasta. Bottom line: Cooked fennel bulb is incredibly versatile and can lend complexity to a wide variety of dishes without overpowering the other flavors.

Benefits of Fennel

Fennel has plenty going for it besides being tasty. Here, a few more reasons why you should be a fan of this flavorful veggie.

  • Fennel boosts milk supply in breastfeeding women. Indeed, research confirms that fennel is a galactagogue, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s a lactating lady’s best friend.
  • Fennel is highly nutritious. Fennel is an excellent (cholesterol-free) source of dietary fiber, potassium, folate and vitamins C and B6—an impressive nutritional profile that promotes heart health and regulates blood pressure, among many other things. (Psst: Check out this study for a rundown of the many ways in which consuming fennel can improve physical health.)
  • Fennel relieves menstrual pain. That’s right—the science shows that fennel can provide relief from the pain associated with period cramps.
  • Fennel has anti-inflammatory properties. Research suggests that the compounds present in fennel reduce markers for inflammation, which points to its therapeutic potential for a host of different conditions.

How to Buy Fennel

Now that you’re eager to give this tasty veg a try, you might be wondering what to look for when selecting a fresh bulb at the store. For starters, steer clear of the really enormous suckers and stick with bulbs that are small to medium in size. Next, give the bulb a squeeze and a once-over before you buy: The best quality bulbs will be firm to the touch, tightly held together and white or very pale green in color. Avoid bulbs that have any bruising or discoloration, as well as those that have split or cracked. Finally, turn your attention to the fronds—they should look fresh (i.e., not wilted) and show no signs of flowering.

How to Grow Fennel

Fennel is very easy to grow, especially when planted by seed. In fact, fennel is quite an aggressive grower—so if you plant some seeds in the spring after the last frost, you’ll have an abundance of fennel ready to harvest in roughly 80 days. Bonus: Since fennel is a famed self-sower, it will likely make a comeback every spring thereafter with little to no effort on your part. For best results, plant Florence fennel seeds (the preferred type for cooking) in an area—raised garden bed, ground or container at least 10 inches deep—that gets full sun and keep the soil moist until the seeds begin to sprout; continue to water regularly, while ensuring the soil is well-drained—and don’t overdo it or your fennel will rot. In other words, you really don’t need a green thumb to successfully grow this easy-going plant—just give it water and plenty of sun and you’ll be golden.

How to Store Fennel

Despite its hardy appearance, fennel is actually fairly fragile and will quickly lose flavor when stored improperly. The best way to keep fennel fresh is to cut the stem off of the bulb and store the two pieces loosely in separate plastic bags in the fridge. When stored in this way, fennel will stay crunchy and flavorful for five days after you bring it home from the grocery store or 10 days if you plucked it straight from your garden.

How to Prepare and Cook Fennel

By now you should have plenty of inspiration for what to do with fennel, but the sight of this large and awkward-looking bulb on your cutting board might shake your confidence. Fear not: Unlike some other vegetables (we’re looking at you, artichoke), fennel is actually pretty straightforward to work with. Here’s how to prepare and cook a fennel bulb.

1. Remove the stalk and fronds. This is the first step, even if you intend to use the whole fennel plant since the stalk and fronds will be chopped separately from the bulb. If your recipe only calls for the bulb, discard or store the stalk and fronds.

2. Rinse the bulb. Sure, you could have rinsed the fennel while the stalk and fronds were still attached, but by separating them first, you leave open the option of reserving them for future use. (Fronds, in particular, don’t fare as well in the fridge once they’ve been washed.) Either way, you’ll need to wash whatever part of the plant you intend to use immediately under cold running water.

3. Trim and chop. Transfer the bulb to your cutting board and begin by trimming off the root end. Next, use a knife to cut a shallow slit into the side of the bulb—just enough so that you can use your fingers to pry away the tough outer layer. Once trimmed, how you then cut the fennel will depend on the cooking method you intend to use.

To add slices of raw fennel into a fresh and crunchy salad, try thinly shaving the bulb on a mandolin. Then simply dress with a basic olive oil and lemon vinaigrette for a refreshing and healthy dish. To roast fennel, slice it ½-inch wedges by first cutting the trimmed bulb in half vertically and then cutting each half into pieces. Spread the wedges cut-side-down on a baking sheet, and toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast fennel in the oven at 400°F for approximately 30 minutes or until the wedges are tender and the edges are caramelized. Perfection. 

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...