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What Is Fennel and How the Heck Do You Cook with It?
Benjamin Egerland / EyeEm/Getty Images

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. 

How Is Fennel Used?

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.

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.

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. For this reason, 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.

How to Prepare and Cook Fennel

If you’re eager to get to know this often overlooked vegetable a little better then we’ve got great news: Prepping this ingredient is easy. 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 mandoline. 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. 

 So that’s all you need to know about fennel, friends. Ready to start cooking with this fragrant ingredient? We have a few ideas to help you get started.

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