Allow us to introduce you to Fennel, the perennial plant classified as a member of the carrot family.
Everyone treats fennel as a whole vegetable— but we’re here to show you that this bulb is so much more than that.
For starters it’s also one of the key ingredients in absinthe!
Fennel is similar to celery in that we can use every part of the plant in both culinary and medicinal purposes. Each part offers a different spectrum of flavours and qualities.
Let’s get into it by breaking the plant down into its different parts. We’ll go over a brief history of the herb, and some different ways to cook each part.
Next time you see one of these at your local market, we hope you pick some up to try for yourself. Its one of the most versatile plants we have.
There really is something in it for everyone.
A Brief History Of Fennel
The history of fennel goes as far back as the middle ages.
Being a perennial herb it was easily grown in the Mediterranean where warriors ate it in hopes of gaining extra strength. The women ate it in hopes of staying thin.
The Greek name for fennel is ‘marathon’ which means “grow thin”.
It was so widely consumed as an appetite suppressant that during the great European famine in the 1200s, mothers would give the dried seeds to their children to help make them feel better and calm the hunger pains.
The seeds have since grown to become one of the most popular spices in middle eastern and Asian cuisines.
Cooking With Fennel
The easiest way to conquer this intimidating bulb is to view it in two ways; raw and cooked. Both ways are enjoyable and bring out a completely different array of flavours.
1. Raw Fennel Heads
Playing with raw fennel is like using a more flavourful version of celery.
The white crisp layers can be pulled apart and shaved paper thin to bring out the anise flavours. This also helps make sure it's not too intrusive in your salad.
If you plan to add it to a salad, I highly suggest investing in a mandoline, it will save time on the slicing- just be sure not to catch your fingers in it!
Keep the shaved bulb in a lemon-water mixture and covered with a damp paper towel to save it from turning brown and losing its crunchy texture.
2. Cooked Fennel Heads
Now let’s talk about cooking the fennel heads.
The most common way to prepare them is by braising.
The low and slow cooking process allows the sugars to nearly caramelize and the bulbs become tender and soft with a faint anise taste.
Depending on what you cook the bulbs with, it's possible for them to pick up hints of meat and other spices. Braising in red wine with lamb or beef is a sure way to impress any dinner guest, even the fussiest ones.
Buying Fennel Heads/Bulbs
When choosing a fennel bulb from your local market or store, ensure that it’s in season. This way you can make sure you’re getting the best flavour for your buck.
Since the bulbs grow underground they can be sensitive to light. When shopping for fennel bulbs make sure that your bulb is white in colour, small to medium size, and have no bruising or discoloured spots.
When selecting your dried seeds, you want them to be a lighter brown colour with a slight green tint to them; this ensures that they're newer and will last longer and have a more potent flavour.
The best way to use the seeds for any recipe that calls for them (whole or ground), is to add the required amount of seeds to a warm pan and continually swirl until they have darkened in colour and become aromatic. From there, you can either hand grind with a mortar and pestle or an electric grinder.
The best way to store the seeds is in a dark cupboard with an airtight seal. If stored in this way they should last up to 6 months.
Fennel Fronds & Stalks:
Both of these items are severely underused in the culinary arts.
The stalks can be oven dried overnight and then grilled with fish or other seafood to infuse the licorice flavour into the tender flesh.
The fronds can be picked and used in salads, as a garnish, or chopped and used as you would any other herb.
The stalks should be a bright green and stand up rigid when picked up. The fronds should be free from discolouration and have a strong aroma.
Popular Uses Of Fennel
Since this vegetable/herb can be broken down into different parts, the number of uses and pairings are extensive.
Some common uses of fennel include:
|Fennel Heads (Bulbs)||Fennel Seeds||Fennel Fronds/Stalks|
|Braised with lamb or beef||In fish or chicken stock||In white wine cream sauce|
|Sliced and added to homemade coleslaw||In pickling brine||Add the to salad directly|
|Shaved and added to a salad||In sausage mix||Toss them in your juicer|
You can also steam the entire plant and serve it as a side dish if you’re feeling lazy.
The Health Benefits Of Fennel
There are actually a lot of health benefits offered by fennel as well.
Fennel is classified as a carminative, appetite suppressant, antispasmodic, nootropic, and digestive tonic.
Eliminates Gas & Bloating
A carminative is any substance that eliminates uncomfortable gas and bloating. Most carminatives, like fennel, have a high essential oil content. This is also the part of the plant that gives the characteristic flavour and aroma.
This action is especially useful after a meal with lots of fiber, protein, or fatty foods. Basically anything that has a tendency to promote gas/bloating after the meal.
The essential oil of fennel has been shown to regulate the movement of the muscles lining the small intestine . This effectively relieves frustrating intestinal gas.
Improve Your Brain Power
A recent study looked at the memory enhancing effects of fennel as suggested through traditional uses of the plant. The study found that an extract made from the whole plant inhibited the effects of an enxyme known as acetylcholinesterase .
Acetylcholinesterase is used to break down the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter is used during memory formation and retrieval.
This is one of the most common mechanisms nootropic compounds use for boosting cognitive function and is one of the primary targets of Alzheimer's Disease medications.
Feel Better After Meals
One of fennels most important uses amongst herbalists is through its ability to give the digestive juices a boost.
Good digestion doesn't just rely on the small intestines. It uses the expertise of a few different organ systems.
Digestion relies on enzyme secretions in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, small intestines, and liver. It works like a waterfall, starting with the stomach and moving down through the flanks, each stage gaining more momentum.
The stomach acid helps to begin breaking apart the food, which then triggers the release of pancreatic and liver enzymes. If stomach acid isn’t strong enough, we can experience sluggish digestive juices all the way through the rest of the digestive tract.
Fennel stops this by boosting digestive enzyme secretions in the stomach, pancreas, and liver .
This makes fennel especially useful as a herb in cooking because it directly helps us digest the food as we eat it.
Getting The Dose Right
Therapeutically, the dose of fennel is about 5-10 grams per day.
This is the dose that herbalists and naturopaths use to treat conditions like poor digestion, IBS, Crohn's disease, and muscle aches & spasms.
Most herbalists will use fennel as a liquid extract for this, but this dose can also be obtained through cooking.
When cooking with fennel, the amount you use can vary a lot depending on the dish, and your individual preference. If you aren’t sure how strong the anise flavour is, try a piece raw before cooking with it.
The bulb, stalk and fronds will all have a different degree of flavour so use your instincts as to how much you wish to use.
If you’re just starting out with adding fennel into your diet, we recommend starting by eating it cooked to help lower the intensity of flavours and allows an easy integration into your recipes.
1. Fennel Cucumber Salad.
4 small cucumbers, very thinly sliced by hand or with a mandolin
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 fennel bulb, quartered and sliced very thin
1 tablespoon fennel fronds, chopped
For the vinaigrette
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
Place the sliced cucumbers in a sieve and salt them. Allow them to sit and drain for an hour. Gently squeeze out extra moisture.
Heat the sesame oil in a small pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the red pepper flakes. Stir and remove from heat.
Mix together the rice vinegar and sugar, until dissolved. Add the sesame oil. Stir thoroughly
Place the cucumbers and fennel in a bowl. Add the vinaigrette and toss gently. Cover and place in the refrigerator and chill, allow a minimum of 20 minutes for flavours to marry.
Serve as a side and enjoy.
2. Pickled Fennel.
1 ¾ cups white wine vinegar
¾ cup water
5 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp salt
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
2 lemons (cut into 1-inch pieces)
2 fennel bulbs (stalks removed and halved)
In a medium saucepan over high heat, bring the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, lemon peel and bay leaf to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and add lemon slices.
Placed the sliced fennel in an airtight container and pour the pickling liquid over. Store in the refrigerator for 3 days before eating. The pickled fennel will keep for 2 weeks. (These are best served with a cheese and meat board along with other complementary pickled items)
3. Braised Fennel With Butter & Parmesan.
750g fennel bulbs (stalks removed and cut in half- save trimmings)
⅓ cup butter
3 Tbsp dry vermouth
⅓ cup grated parmesan, plus extra for serving
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375F (170C)
Melt butter in a oven-safe dish. Place fennel in butter, cut side down and scatter the trimmings around. Season with salt and pepper and increase heat to brown fennel. TIP: Avoid over salting the fennel if using salted butter. Remember that parmesan is also a salty cheese. You can always adjust seasonings after.
Add vermouth and cover loosely with tinfoil and lid. Place in oven and cook for 40-50 minutes or until tender. Flipping fennel halfway through.
Once fully cooked, remove from dish and cover with tinfoil to keep warm.
Pour pan juices and trimmings into a pot through a fine mesh sieve. Heat through and add half of the parmesan. Pulse with a hand blender until smooth and creamy
Turn oven to broil. Return cooked fennel to an oven-proof dish and pour sauce over and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Place in oven until golden brown and sauce is bubbling.
Serve with extra cheese.
4. Sweet Fennel Sausage:
1 LB Ground pork
1 tsp fresh thyme- chopped
1 medium fennel bulb
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves of garlic- roasted
1 tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp kosher salt (or any coarse ground salt)
Fresh cracked pepper
1. Toasting the Fennel Seeds
Heat a dry pan over medium heat and toast the fennel seeds. Swirl continually to ensure they don’t burn.
2. Preparing The Fennel
Cut off the fronds and stalks. Slice the fennel in half and remove the core.
Slice the bulb halves remaining thinly.
Using a heavy skillet, add the butter and olive oil. Heat over medium-high heat until the butter is melted. Add the raw fennel and a pinch of kosher salt.
Cook the fennel for 10 minutes until it begins to brown. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook until caramelized.
Remove from the pan and roughly chop.
3. Making The Sweet Sausage Fennel mixture
In a bowl, add the pork, fennel, thyme, roasted garlic, toasted fennel seeds, balsamic vinegar, salt and 8-10 grinds of pepper.
Mix until all the ingredients are incorporated.
Make a small "tester" sausage patty. Cook thoroughly and adjust the seasonings.
4. Cooking With Sweet Fennel Sausage
In a heavy bottom pan, heat some olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add in the sausage patties.
Cover the pan. Cook for 4-5 minutes. Flip the patties and return cover. Cook for another 4-5 minutes or until cooked through.
Serve hot and enjoy.
5. Baked Sea Bass With Fennel
2 small sea bass, scaled and gutted
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced
1 lemon, sliced
A handful of basil leaves, roughly torn
½ cup black olives, pitted
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Heat oven to 385F (200C). Rinse and dry the fish. Season all over with salt and pepper (don’t forget to season the inside as well)
Stuff the cavity with half of the fennel, lemon and basil. Scatter the remaining along with olives in a baking dish and place fish on top.
Drizzle fish with olive oil and bake for 30 minutes or until desired doneness.
Fennel is a well-rounded culinary herb with medicinal benefits.
It’s adds a unique flavour to the dish, which can be dialed in to be as intense or subtle as you want depending on what part of the plant you use, and how much.
Fennel is great with heavy meals for its ability to help us digest and eases abdominal discomfort associated with gas and bloating.
It also enhances memory, suppresses the appetite, and helps the muscles relax.
Fennel just may be the perfect culinary herb.
This article was a collaboration between
Justin Cooke & Katy Connan
Katy is one of the minds behind the creative blog outlet Kitty Gang, and a damn good chef.
Comment below if you want to see more articles like this in the future.
Badgujar, S. B., Patel, V. V., & Bandivdekar, A. H. (2014). Foeniculum vulgare Mill: A Review of Its Botany, Phytochemistry, Pharmacology, Contemporary Application, and Toxicology. BioMed Research International, 2014, 1-32. doi:10.1155/2014/842674
Vasudevan, K., Vembar, S., Veeraraghavan, K., & Haranath, P. S. (2000). Influence of intragastric perfusion of aqueous spice extracts on acid secretion in anesthetized albino rats. Indian journal of gastroenterology: official journal of the Indian Society of Gastroenterology, 19(2), 53-56.