What Is Fennel and How Can I Use It?
Fennel might not be the first thing you grab from the produce aisle on a busy weeknight, but it's worth getting to know better. Although its sweetness and crunch are reminiscent of celery, apples and carrots, fennel has a sophisticated, licorice-like flavor that can make even a simple salad more memorable. Here's a fun fennel tidbit from Greek mythology: As the story goes, the god Prometheus stole fire from Zeus's lightning, smuggled it into a hollow fennel stalk and brought it to humankind. Today, fennel can play almost as epic a role in your weekly meal plan—and we have plenty of healthy fennel recipes to get you started.
What Is Fennel?
Fennel is an aromatic vegetable with a rounded white bulb at the base and gently curving stalks covered with fern-like leaves. The entire plant is edible, and you can think of it as a multitasker: The base can be sliced and used as a main ingredient in dishes like salads, while the fronds (the tiny, frilly leaves) can be finely chopped and treated as an herb (some cooks like to swap it in for dill). And don't toss the stalks—they can be quick-pickled or used in a mirepoix the next time you make soup or stock.
Fennel, which is related to carrots and parsley, was first cultivated in the Mediterranean. The type seen today at farmers' markets and grocery stores is known as Florence fennel or finocchio, and it originated in Italy during the 17th century. The two other main types, bitter fennel and sweet fennel, are used only as herbs and lack the bulb at the stem.
When choosing fennel, look for bulbs that are firm, uncracked and free of brown spots or signs of dryness. The stalks should be smooth, tightly packed and have bright, fresh-looking fronds.
How to Cut a Fennel Bulb
Start by separating the bulb from the stalks and leaves (make sure to save them to use later!). Using a chef's knife, cut the bulb in half vertically. At this point, you can choose whether or not to remove the triangular core from each half. Leaving it in will give you thicker slices, while removing it will make skinnier strips. Then thinly slice the bulb either lengthwise, following the line from top to bottom, or crosswise (horizontally), to create half-moon–shaped pieces. You can also dice the bulb as you would an onion.
If you're using raw fennel in a salad, try making thin ribbons, which are pleasant to eat and help distribute vinaigrette evenly. You can either run each half of the bulb over a mandoline, or cut strips with a Y-shaped vegetable peeler. Here are a few fennel salads to try:
- Tomato & Fennel Salad: The sweetness of peak summer tomatoes pairs well with fennel's distinctive anise flavor in this bright-tasting salad.
- Fennel & Grapefruit Salad (pictured above): Fennel's heartiness makes it a great option for winter salads like this one with grapefruit.
- Roasted Fennel & Farro Salad: This hearty dish would work well for either a party or as a bring-to-work lunch option, since it can be made up to two days ahead. The fennel is tossed with olive oil and then roasted with bell peppers.
- Apple & Fennel Salad with Blue Cheese: Along with thinly sliced fennel bulb, this salad has a quarter-cup of fennel fronds mixed in for extra flavor.
- Seared Salmon with Sugar Snap-Fennel Slaw: Sliced fennel and sugar snap peas get mixed together for a fresh take on coleslaw. Marinating the slaw briefly in vinaigrette (while the salmon is cooking) helps soften the raw fennel's fibrous texture.
How to Cook Fennel
The recipes below prove that both fennel bulbs and fronds can be used in a variety of ways.
- Broiled Fennel with Parmesan Cheese (pictured above): In this easy 15-minute side, fennel's sweet flavor is complemented by nutty, salty Parmesan cheese.
- Braised Fennel with Tomatoes & Potatoes: Braising fennel helps tenderize it and draw out its sweetness. In this recipe, the addition of Pernod (an anise-flavored liqueur) and fennel seed help give the finished dish a more complex flavor.
- Roast Chicken & Fennel: Trying to eat more veggies? Instead of the classic roast chicken and potatoes, try this version with fennel. The diced bulb is first roasted on its own before being combined with pine nuts and browned chicken drumsticks for a second turn in the oven.
- Mediterranean Sautéed Shrimp & Fennel: The fennel is first sautéed and mixed with canned tomatoes, and quick-cooking shrimp are added at the end. Although the final addition of feta and capers give this dish a sophisticated feel, it's simple to pull together on a busy weeknight.
- Fennel & Pork Stew: In this hearty stew, fennel and onions create a bed for juicy, slow-cooked pork. The fronds are reserved and used as a garnish.
- Fennel & Chicken Flatbread: Fennel is used in two ways on this flatbread: the bulb is sautéed with chicken and used as a topping, and the fronds are sprinkled on at the end.
Fennel Health Benefits
One cup of fennel provides about 14% of the Daily Value of vitamin C, which is believed to help boost immunity and guard against cell damage that may cause disease. Fennel is also a good source of both potassium and fiber, both of which may improve overall cardiovascular health. The compound anethole, which is responsible for fennel's distinctive smell, also offers benefits: it's been studied for its ability to suppress cancer cells as well as reduce inflammation in areas like the gums.