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 it better. Although its subtle 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' 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 bulb 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 broth.
Fennel, which is related to carrots and parsley (they're all part of the Apiaceae family), 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.
Fennel vs. Anise
Fennel and anise are different plants but are closely related. Anise is also part of the Apiaceae family and looks very similar to fennel. Fennel's characteristic licorice-y flavor is milder and less sweet than that of anise, making it more palatable and therefore more widely cultivated for sale in your produce section. Anise is mainly used for aniseed, the dry spice, which is technically the dry fruit of the anise plant (We just call them seeds because that's what they look like.) Aniseed is usually used in baked goods because of its strong licorice flavor and aroma and its sweetness. Fennel seeds are the actual seeds of the fennel plant and are more often used in savory applications. (Star anise is a completely different plant.)
And in case you've ever wondered how to say "anise", it's pronounced "Ann-niss."
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. The core may be a bit tougher than the rest of the bulb, so if you're eating fennel in a raw preparation, you may want to cut out the core. 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 with a peeler or shaving it on a box grater. You can also run each half of the bulb over a mandoline. Here are a few fennel salads to try:
How to Cook Fennel
The recipes below prove that both fennel bulbs and fronds can be used in a variety of ways.
- Mediterranean Sautéed Shrimp & Fennel: The fennel is first sautéed and mixed with canned tomatoes, and then quick-cooking shrimp are added toward the end. Although the 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 Health Benefits
Fennel contains many nutrients. One cup of fennel provides about 14% of your Daily Value for vitamin C. It's 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 to reduce inflammation in areas like the gums.
Next time you see those green fronds waving at you from down the produce aisle, heed their call and bag a bulb or two. Raw or cooked, fennel's slight sweetness and licorice-reminiscent flavor and aroma can elevate a variety of dishes both sweet and savory. It also easy to prep as well as nutritious.