What is Fennel?

Fennel yields both a herb and a spice. All plant parts are edible: roots, stalks and leaves, with the spice coming from the dried seeds. A native to the Mediterranean, it is an ancient and common plant known to the ancient Greeks and spread throughout Europe by Imperial Rome. It is also grown in India, the Orient, Australia, South America and has become naturalized in the US. It has been called the “meeting’ seed” by the Puritans who would chew it during their long church services. The name derives from the Latin foeniculum, meaning “little hay”.

Spice Description

Fennel seeds split into two, one sometimes remaining on the stalk. They are 4 -8 mm (1/8 – 5/16 in) long, thin and curved, with colour varying from brown to light green (the green being superior).
Bouquet: warm, sweet and aromatic
Flavour: similar to a mild anise
Hotness Scale: 1

Cooking with Fennel

As a herb, fennel leaves are used in French and Italian cuisine’s in sauces for fish and in mayonnaise. In Italy fennel is also used to season pork roasts and spicy sausages, especially the Florentine salami finocchiona. It is traditionally considered one of the best herbs for fish dishes.

The English use the seeds in almost all fish dishes, especially as a court bouillon for poaching fish and seafood. It is used to flavor breads, cakes and confectionery. It is an ingredient of Chinese Five Spices and of some curry powders. Several liquors are flavoured with fennel, including fennouillette, akvavit, gin and was used in distilling absinthe.

Preparation and Storage

Seeds can be used whole or ground in a spice mill or mortar and pestle. Store away from light in airtight containers.

Fennel Substitute

Fennel bulb substitute: When cooked, fennel is sweet and soft. Onions also become sweet like fennel does when it is cooked and can be used to substitute fennel that is sautéed or grilled. If a recipe calls for raw fennel for a salad,though, celery is much closer in texture to fennel. Fennel is crunchy and firm when raw, like celery, but celery is not as sweet.

Fennel leaf substitute: The flavor of dill is more grassy and savory than the flavor of fennel fronds, but still make a suitable replacement. For a fresher and brighter-flavored herb, you can use cilantro or parsley.

Fennel seed substitute: The closest substitution for fennel seeds are anise seeds, which come from a different plant but also have a licorice flavor.

Health Benefits of Fennel

In the first century, Pliny noted that after snakes had shed their skins, they ate fennel to restore their sight. It has since been used as a wash for eyestrain and irritations. Chinese and Hindus used it as a snake bite remedy. It is carminative, a weak diuretic and mild stimulant. The oil is added to purgative medication to prevent intestinal colic.

Fennel was once used to stimulate lactation. It allays hunger and was thought to be a cure for obesity in Renaissance Europe. It should not be used in high dosages as it causes muscular spasms and hallucinations. The major constituents of fennel, which include the terpenoid anethole, are found in the volatile oil. Anethole and other terpenoids inhibit spasms in smooth muscles, such as those in the intestinal tract, and this is thought to contribute to fennel’s use as a carminative (gas-relieving and gastrointestinal tract cramp-relieving agent).

Related compounds to anethole may have mild estrogenic actions, although this has not been proven in humans. It is also thought to possess diuretic (increase in urine production), choleretic (increase in production of bile), pain-reducing, fever-reducing, and anti-microbial actions.

The seeds are used as a flavoring agent in many herbal medicines, and to help disperse flatulence. The seeds, and roots, also help to open obstructions of the liver, spleen & gall bladder, and to ease painful swellings, in addition to helping with yellow jaundice, the gout and occasional cramps.

Growing Fennel

Fennel is a hardy perennial related to parsley, often cultivated as an annual, reaching heights of 1.5 – 2.5 m (5 – 8 ft). It resembles dill, which it can cross-pollinate with. It should be kept at a distance from dill because the resulting seed will have a dulled flavour. The flower heads are collected before the seeds ripen and threshed out when completely dried.

Other Names

Common Fennel, Florence Fennel, Large Fennel, Sweet Fennel, Wild Fennel, Large Cumin, Sweet Cumin

French: fenouil
German: fenchel
Greek: marathon
Italian: finocchio
Spanish: hinojo
Chinese: wooi heung
Indian: barisaunf, madhurika, sonf
Indonesian: adas
Malaysian: jintan manis

Scientific Name

Foeniculum vulgare
Fam: Ulmblliferae

Recipes using Fennel

Try Grilled sea bass with fennel.