What Are Fennel Seeds and How Do You Cook with Them?
This dried, licorice-like seasoning might be a bit under-the-radar, but it's distinctively flavorful and has health benefits to boot.
Whether you use them for pickling vegetables, seasoning sausage or making a crust for fish or beef fillets, you'll soon realize that aromatic fennel seeds can elevate the most basic recipes. They also offer vitamins, minerals and fiber, so you can feel good about working them into your weekly meal plan. (Learn more about the health benefits of spices: Eight of the World's Healthiest Spices and Herbs You Should be Eating.)
What Are Fennel Seeds?
Fennel seeds are harvested from the plant's flowers and then dried. They tend to be pale green to tan in color with an oval shape. Like the fennel bulb, they have a sweet, licorice-like flavor that can lend an earthy, sweet taste to dishes, and they pair especially well with seafood and pork.
Pictured Recipe: Grilled Fennel-Rubbed Pork Chops & Apricots
Are Anise and Fennel the Same Thing?
Fennel is sometimes confused with anise and although both are part of the parsley family, anise is a separate species entirely. Anise is grown mainly for its seeds, while fennel has the bulb, fronds and seeds to offer. (For more fennel inspiration, check out What is Fennel and How Can I Use It?) Anise has a stronger, sharper licorice flavor compared to fennel. (And just to make things a bit more complicated, the strong, distinctive-tasting star anise—a main ingredient in many Chinese dishes—is from a completely different plant family than both fennel and anise.)
What's a Good Substitute for Fennel Seed?
If you need a swap for fennel seed, you can use anise seed since their tastes are similar. But keep in mind, you will want to use less anise, as it tends to be stronger. Depending on your preferences, other seeds will work as well, such as dill, caraway, cumin or coriander.
Pictured Recipe: Easy Fennel & Peppercorn Pickled Beets
Fennel Seed Health Benefits
In terms of nutrition, fennel seeds are tiny but mighty: They contain minerals like calcium, iron and magnesium, which, among other things, help regulate blood pressure. They also contain manganese, which is important for bone health and healing and is being studied for possible anti-cancer benefits.
A study on fennel seeds in the Journal of Food Science showed that chewing the seeds increased the amount of nitrites in saliva, which may help lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.
Where to Find Fennel Seeds
Whole fennel seeds are sold in the dried spices section of most supermarkets. While ground fennel is also an option, for maximum freshness and flavor it's best to buy whole seeds and grind them yourself at home. From there, enjoy them on their own or combine them with other spices to make your own unique spice blend. (For inspiration, check out DIY Seasonings & Herb Mixes You Can Make at Home.)
Culinary Uses for Fennel Seeds
With a flavor profile that's distinctive and herbaceous, fennel seed is a versatile spice that can be used as a crust for beef or fish fillets (try them out here in this Fennel-Crusted Salmon on White Beans) as well as a seasoning for soups (like in this Fennel & Rice Soup ). Add them to salad dressings, main dishes like pork tenderloin, desserts and more!