What Is Fennel?
A staple in Italian cuisine for millennia, fennel is a vegetable that yields no waste if you take the time to use each one of its unique parts. Here's how to prep and cook it.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
Perhaps you've seen fennel crop up in markets in late winter to early spring. Or maybe you've seen fennel seeds listed as an ingredient in Italian sausage. With its layered, bulb-like base and long fronded stalks, fennel looks intimidating and hard to cook. In reality, it's not, and you'll be hooked by its unique flavor and crisp texture. We're on a mission to spread the word on fennel, so we’ve compiled everything we think you might want to know to get started using it.
What Is Fennel?
Fennel is a layered, bulbous vegetable that originated in the Mediterranean and has been used for centuries. In Italian fennel is finocchio, which sounds like Pinocchio and makes us smile. Fennel is used as an ingredient in recipes and on its own as a side dish to complement a rich entrée. The vegetable has a mild licorice flavor and can be thinly sliced and eaten raw or cooked.
There are two varieties of fennel. The vegetable we eat and from which fennel seeds are harvested is called Florence fennel. The other is fennel called vulgare. The yellow flowers of this variety are crushed up into the spice fennel pollen.
What Does Fennel Taste Like?
Fennel has a very mild anise or licorice flavor that can be enhanced or sweetened depending on how it is cooked (or not cooked). When diced and sauteed with onions as one of the first steps when making a soup or stew, fennel becomes very sweet. If you’re looking for a pronounced fennel flavor, try crushing or chopping a teaspoon or two of fennel seed and adding it with the diced fennel when you start your sauteed vegetables. When fennel is sliced and used in a salad, the flavor is more pronounced, brought out by the vinaigrette you use.
Is Fennel a Type of Onion?
Surprisingly, fennel is not even closely related to onions, as the layers are the only resemblance. In fact, fennel bulbs’ closest relatives are carrots. Their wispy fronds look very similar to fresh dill, but fennel isn’t related to dill either.
Which Parts of Fennel Do You Eat?
We can, and do, eat all of the parts of the fennel plant. Let’s start at the bottom:
- Fennel roots are tuberous and can be peeled, diced and used as carrots when cooked. They are white, so adding them to a soup you’d puree is a flavorful way to add some bulk to create a thicker soup. Not the best choice for eating raw.
- The bulb is the bulk of the plant, with its thick ribbed layered leaves, each producing a stalk. The bulb can be sliced, diced, cut in wedges or peeled into leaves. The fennel bulb can be eaten raw or cooked.
- The stalk is quite fibrous, and to eat it directly, it must be cooked. Adding stalks to a broth or soup for flavor and then discarding it a great way you can harness its flavor.
- Fennel fronds grow out of the stalks and look like beautiful, frilly, thread-like dill. They are a delicate garnish and are also used as a fresh herb in salads and other dishes.
- As fennel grows and ages, it flowers. When the flowers are harvested and dried, they are packaged as fennel pollen, a delicacy and the darling of chefs everywhere.
- When not harvested as pollen, the flowers produce seeds, and these are the fennel seeds that you buy in a jar and see in sweet Italian sausage and finocchio salami.
How to Cut Fennel
The bulb is the part of fennel you will use most frequently. When you look for it at the market, look for the whitest, firmest bulbs you can find, with at least three inches of stalk: the stalk keeps the bulb layers from drying out quickly. Look at where the outer leaves attach to the bulb: this area should not look spongy. To store, remove stalks and fronds from bulb and wrap separately in plastic bags; keep in the refrigerator drawer for 5 to 7 days.
- Cut the stalks off the bulb.
- Remove any "rusty" dark brown spots from the outer layers of the bulb with a peeler or paring knife. Many, many (almost all) recipes will tell you to peel off the outer layers. If you do this, you stand the chance of losing up to 35% of your bulb, because the two outer leaves are the biggest and heaviest.
- Now the cutting decision has to be made, and you’ll probably do whatever the recipe says. If the bulb is to be quartered and your bulb is the size of a softball, cut it in eighths. If the recipe says sliced, you can cut across or up and down, and the core will hold the pieces together. 1/4-inch slices with the core are best for grilling. Thin slices across are best for sautéing and putting with pasta or on a pizza. If you’re adding it as an aromatic to a soup or stew, cut it in half to create two flat pieces with the core holding it all together and then dice the fennel as you would an onion. And for a salad, your best option is a mandoline. You want the fennel to be really thin so it stays light and feathery. Chefs use mandolines. It’s not cheating.
How to Use Fennel
The list of what you can do with fennel is as long as the list of what you can do with celery or carrots or onions. It’s longer than what you can do with any of the broccoli-cauliflower family vegetables because fennel is sweet and gentle and never offends anyone, if you know what we mean.
So put in soups and stews, pastas and salads, on pizzas and in vegetables sandwiches with roasted peppers and onions and melty Italian cheeses. One of our favorite ways to eat fennel is grilled. However: fennel will dry out and get tough if you attempt to cook it 100% of the way on the grill. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the fennel to cook it 50% of the way before grilling. That way, when you grill it, you’ll be getting all of the grill flavor and it will maintain its fennel-ness and not taste like burnt mystery vegetable.
Making fresh fennel candy and fennel syrup are the two most intriguing uses for fennel that we’ve seen. The stalks are thinly sliced and cooked in a sugar syrup, then dried. The make a treat or a very cheffy garnish for any dessert that has other licorice flavors. The leftover syrup is a favorite of mixologists when they want the freshest sweet licorice flavor, especially cocktails with absinthe, as fennel is one of the ingredients in absinthe.
What's a Good Substitute for Fennel?
Celery is often mentioned as a good substitute for fennel, and that is true if you’re using it in a salad. But celery has a fairly assertive, nothing-like-fennel flavor when cooked, and if you don’t care for it, too much celery can overpower everything else, and you’ll be supremely disappointed. For a mild flavor with a similar texture, you can use the white, thicker part of bok choy. Adding extra onion is also an option. Onion will add sweetness, bok choy a little bite. We like to add crushed fennel seed to a cooked dish when we use a substitute for the bulb so we do get fennel flavor.
A mandoline and a tube of polenta make this the most elegant fast dinner we know.
The fennel is so delicate in this salad, it’s like butterfly wings. The sweet pear is the perfect compliment.
Fennel brings the flavor to this hearty soup, but if you can’t find it fresh, bok choy and a teaspoon of crushed fennel seed are a great substitute.
The sugar brings out the true nature of the fennel in this roasted side dish.
A Dutch oven is a great pot for a stew as hearty this Pork and Fennel Ragout.