This is a completely revised article for “Fennel 101 – The Basics.” The original article, published on May 2, 2019, is a fine article in itself and offers some different information than this version, which is formatted like my more recent 101 articles. Either one should provide you with plenty of valuable information about fennel!
Fennel 101 – The Basics (UPDATE)
Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family of plants. It is closely related to parsley, carrots, dill, and cilantro (coriander). It has a white or pale green bulb with stalks extending upward, topped with feathery green leaves (also called fronds). All parts are edible. Fennel is crunchy and slightly sweet with somewhat of a licorice or anise flavor. The texture is similar to that of celery. Fennel is most often used in Italian and French cooking.
The use of fennel stems back to Greek mythology. It was prized by ancient Greeks and Romans for its medicinal and culinary properties. Today, fennel has an important role in the cuisines of many European nations, especially France and Italy. The United States, France, India, and Russia are among the leading cultivators of fennel.
Nutrition and Health Benefits
Fennel is an excellent source of Vitamin C. It also supplies a lot of fiber, potassium, molybdenum, manganese, copper, phosphorus, folate, calcium, pantothenic acid, magnesium, iron, and niacin. Fennel also contains an array of phytonutrients with health-promoting qualities.
Antioxidant Protection. Fennel contains an array of important compounds with antioxidant properties, including rutin, quercetin, kaempferol glycosides, and others. Researchers have found that these compounds are comparable in their antioxidant effects as BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), an antioxidant commonly added to processed foods.
One compound in particular, anethole, has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that help to prevent cancer (specifically liver cancer).
Fennel is also abundant in Vitamin C, the body’s main water-soluble antioxidant known to stop free radicals in all watery environments in the body. If left unchecked, those harmful molecules cause cellular damage that results in joint deterioration in diseases like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The Vitamin C in fennel has also been shown to have antimicrobial effects needed for proper functioning of the immune system.
Cardiovascular and Colon Health. With fennel being high in fiber, it may help to reduce cholesterol levels by binding with bile, removing it from the body. This forces the body to make more bile from existing cholesterol. Also, fiber removes potentially carcinogenic toxins from the colon, warding off colon cancer.
Fennel also contains a lot of folate, a B-vitamin known to convert homocysteine (a type of amino acid) into other benign molecules. It is well known that high levels of homocysteine can directly damage blood vessel walls, raising our risk for heart attack and stroke. So, keeping homocysteine levels in check can directly help to lower our risk for cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, fennel is a good source of potassium, an electrolyte known for helping to lower blood pressure, another factor that needs to be kept in check to ward off cardiovascular disease.
How to Select Fennel
Look for fennel bulbs that are clean, firm, and solid, without signs of bruising, splitting or spotting. The bulbs should be whitish or pale green. The stalks should be relatively straight, and the stalks and leaves should be green. There should be no signs of flowering buds, which indicates the vegetable is old. It should have a slight licorice or anise aroma.
Fennel is usually available from fall through early spring.
How to Store Fennel
Do not wash the vegetable until you are ready to use it. Trim the stalks to two or three inches above the bulb. Wrap the stalks and leaves loosely in a paper towel or clean cloth, then place that inside a loose plastic bag. Store the fresh bulb in the refrigerator crisper drawer with the air vent closed to maintain a humid environment. Fresh fennel ages quickly and should be used as soon as possible, usually within 4 days.
How to Prepare Fennel
First, cut the stalks off the bulb. Wash the bulb. If the bulb isn’t going to be used whole in a recipe, the root core is often removed. It is edible, but can be fibrous and tough when not thoroughly cooked. To do this, slice the bulb in half from top to bottom. Using the tip of your knife, cut an upside down “V” over the root end from the inside of a bulb half. Remove the core after cutting. Repeat with the other half of the bulb. After removing the root core, the bulb halves can be cut as needed. Here is a link to my video demonstration on this procedure… https://youtu.be/z26Ei9b5Pu0
Fennel can dry out quickly when cut. If you need to cut it in advance, store it wrapped in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag or airtight container in the refrigerator until needed.
Save the leaves (or fronds) for use as an herb. They can be sprinkled on salads or used as a garnish on a dish where fennel was used. The stalks can be used in cooking or making stock.
How to Freeze Fennel
Fennel is best when fresh. It can be frozen after being blanched, but loses some of its flavor in the process. Fennel will have a soft texture after being frozen, so it cannot be used for raw applications. However, frozen fennel may be added to soups and stews. To freeze the bulb, cut it into small pieces and blanch them in boiling water for 3 minutes. Transfer them to a bowl of cold water and allow them to cool down. Then drain well and transfer them to an airtight container or freezer bag. Label them with the date and use them within 12 months.
The fennel stalks and fronds freeze well and easily. Simply wash them, cut them into small pieces and place them in ice cube trays. Cover with water and freeze. Once frozen, transfer them to airtight containers or freezer bags. Add them to soups, stews or casseroles, as needed.
The stalks and fronds may also be washed, cut, then frozen in freezer bags. Remove as much air as possible, and simply store them in the freezer. As with the bulb, when the stalks and fronds are used after being frozen, they will be soft and not have the same texture as when they were raw. They will be best used in cooking applications. Use your frozen fennel pieces within 12 months for best quality.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Fennel
* The stalks of fennel can be saved to add to soups and stews.
* The leaves of fennel (fronds) can be used as an herb seasoning. Add fennel leaves to salads or cooked foods as a garnish.
* Try stir-steaming fennel and onions in a little vegetable broth and serve it as a side dish.
* Try a fennel pesto by blending fennel leaves (fronds), garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and pine nuts.
* Try a salad of sliced fennel with avocado and orange segments.
* Try topping thinly sliced fennel with plain yogurt and mint leaves.
* Add shaved fennel to coleslaw.
* Braised fennel goes well with scallops.
* The fennel bulb can be somewhat fibrous, so when using it raw, slice it thinly so it’s easier to eat.
* When you cook fish, try laying fennel stalks and fronds (leaves) next to or on the fish to infuse its sweet flavor as the fish cooks.
* One pound of fresh fennel is about 3 cups sliced.
* If a recipe calls for one pound of fresh fennel and you don’t have it, you can substitute one pound of celery with 1 teaspoon of crushed fennel seeds in place of the fennel. One pound of bok choy plus 1 teaspoon of crushed fennel seeds may also be used as a substitute for fennel.
* If a recipe calls for fennel seeds and you don’t have them, you can substitute anise seeds for the fennel seeds. Bear in mind that anise seeds have a stronger flavor then fennel seeds, so use a little less anise seeds than what the recipe calls for.
* If a recipe calls for fennel fronds (leaves) and you don’t have any, dill leaves or tarragon may be used as a replacement. Note that the flavors are different and will change the flavor profile of the dish.
* Try braising fennel in orange juice with some shallots until just barely fork-tender. Add a touch of salt, if desired. Sprinkle with a little parsley and orange zest and enjoy!
Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Fennel
Anise, basil, bay leaf, capers, chervil, chicory, chili pepper flakes, coriander, curry powder, curry spices, dill, fennel seeds, mint, mustard seeds, oregano, parsley, pepper, saffron, sage, salt, star anise, tarragon, thyme, vanilla
Foods That Go Well with Fennel
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, beans (in general), cannellini beans, cashews, chestnuts, chicken, chickpeas, edamame, eggs, fish (in general), green beans, hazelnuts, lamb, lentils, nuts (in general), pecans, pistachios, pork, pumpkin seeds, salmon, sausage, scallops, sesame seeds, shellfish, snap peas, walnuts, white beans
Vegetables: Artichokes, arugula, asparagus, beets, beet juice, bell peppers, carrots, cauliflower, celery, celery root, chiles, chives, cucumbers, eggplant, endive, escarole, garlic, ginger, greens (all types), leeks, lettuce (all types), mushrooms, onions, potatoes, radicchio, radishes, scallions, shallots, squash (summer and winter), tomatoes, tomato sauce, turnips, watercress, zucchini
Fruits: Apples, avocado, cherries (esp. dried), citrus fruits (in general), Clementines, cranberries (esp. dried), figs, grapefruit, lemons, limes, mangos, olives, oranges (esp. blood oranges), peaches, pears, pomegranates
Grains and Grain Products: Bread crumbs, couscous, grains (in general), millet, pasta, quinoa, rice, spelt, wild rice
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Butter, cheese (in general, esp. goat, Gorgonzola, Gruyère, Parmesan, ricotta), cream
Other Foods: Honey, liqueurs (with anise/licorice flavor), mustard (prepared, i.e., Dijon), oil (in general, esp. olive), soy sauce, stock, tamari, vermouth, vinegar (esp. balsamic, champagne, cider, raspberry, white wine), wine (esp. dry white)
Fennel has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Casseroles, Chinese cuisine, curries, egg dishes, French cuisine, gratins, Italian cuisine, Mediterranean cuisines, pasta dishes, pestos, pizza, relishes, risottos, salads (i.e., fennel, grain, green, tomato), salad dressings (fennel fronds), salsa, sauces (i.e., tomato), sausage, slaws, soufflés, soups (i.e., fennel, potato, tomato, vegetable), stews, stir-fries, stuffings
Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Fennel
Add fennel to any of the following combinations…
Acid (i.e., orange juice, vinegar) + Beets
Almonds + Avocados + Greens
Arugula + Grapefruit + Hazelnuts
Beets + Belgian Endive
Blood Orange + Romaine Lettuce
Cashews + Oranges + Vanilla
Cheese + Nuts (i.e., almonds, walnuts) + Fruit (i.e., apples, pears)
Cranberries + Nuts + Wild Rice [in salads]
Cucumbers + Mustard + Thyme
Endive + Pears
Escarole + Olives + Ricotta Cheese
Escarole + Oranges
Fennel Seeds + Garlic + Olive Oil + Thyme
Fennel Seeds + Lemon Juice + Olive Oil
Fennel Fronds (leaves) + Avocado + Grapefruit [in salads]
Feta Cheese + Lemon + Parsley
Garlic + Olives + Parmesan Cheese + Tomatoes
Garlic + Potatoes
Greens + Cheese + Mushrooms
Lemon + Olive Oil + Parmesan Cheese + Parsley [in salads]
Mushrooms + Parmesan Cheese
Olives + Oranges
Oranges + Nuts (i.e., pecans, walnuts)
Oranges + Red Onions + White Beans
Braised Fennel with Shallots https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-braised-fennel-and-shallots-recipes-from-the-kitchn-202766
Shaved Fennel, Roasted Tomato and Pistachio Salad with Yogurt Dressing https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-shaved-fennel-roasted-tomato-pistachio-salad-183007
Grilled Fennel Salad with Fresh Herbs and Parmesan https://www.prouditaliancook.com/2013/06/grilled-fennel-salad-with-fresh-herbs-and-parmesan.html?m
Roasted Fennel with Parmesan https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/roasted-fennel-with-parmesan-recipe-1943604
53 Fresh Fennel Recipes That Make Us Fall for It All Over Again https://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/slideshow/fennel-recipes
25 Truly Fabulous Fennel Recipes https://www.marthastewart.com/286398/fennel-recipes
Basic Roasted Fennel https://www.finecooking.com/recipe/basic-roasted-fennel
Fennel al Forno https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/12301-fennel-al-forno
22 Fresh Fennel Recipes That Everyone Will Love https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/09/fennel-recipes.html
Sautéed Fennel with Garlic https://www.tastingtable.com/cook/recipes/sauteed-fennel-garlic-recipe
Roasted Fennel and Fingerling Potatoes https://producemadesimple.ca/roasted-fennel-and-fingerling-potatoes/
White Bean Fennel Soup https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/white-bean-fennel-soup/
Carrot Fennel Soup https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/carrot-fennel-soup-350600
Caramelized Fennel: The Best Fennel You’ll Ever Eat https://www.freshcityfarms.com/recipes/caramelized-fennel-the-best-fennel-you-ll-ever-eat
Arugula and Fennel Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette https://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-arugula-and-fennel-salad-with-lemon-vinaigrette-recipes-from-the-kitchn-202595
Joachim, David. (2010) The Food Substitutions Bible. 2nd Edition. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Robert Rose, Inc.
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.