Fennel, with its tightly packed bulb, tall green stems, and feathery fronds, is an easy and reliable ingredient that’s delicious raw or cooked. And with fresh fennel, you get a 3-in-1: The bulb, stalks, and fronds can all be eaten and treated like individual ingredients.
If fresh fennel is generous, the entire plant is basically The Giving Tree. Just one plant gives a spice (the seeds), a fresh herb and an aromatic (fronds and stalks), garnishes (fronds and blossoms), one of the dreamiest luxury ingredients (fennel pollen, what a treat!), and a versatile vegetable (the bulb).
Get to know fennel a little better and you’ll love it a lot more.
What Is Fennel?
Fennel is native to the Mediterranean and has been around for most of recorded human history. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and brought it to mankind hidden inside a hollow fennel stalk. In his Naturalis Historia (77 AD), Pliny the Elder recommended fennel as a remedy for stomachache and more than twenty other ailments. And King Charlemagne (792-814 AD) cultivated fennel on his imperial farm and is responsible for its spread into central Europe.
All this early fuss was over the original fennel plant, which is very different from the fennel of today. The first fennel was wild fennel: All stalk, producing only seeds, blossoms, and fronds with intense flavor. Wild fennel is still alive and well, but you’re more likely to find it growing along California roadsides than at a farmers market or grocery store.
The culinary fennel that’s common today is known as “Florence fennel” or finocchio, developed in Italy in the 17th century. It’s similar to wild fennel at the top—stalks, fronds, blossoms—but at the base the stalk swells and forms a white bulb. That bulb (also known as the “crown”) is a bunch of tightly bound, overlapping layers of crisp-juicy flesh that tastes vegetal with a hint of anise (think licorice).
What Does Fennel Taste Like?
Despite its resemblance to the allium (onion and garlic) family, fennel tastes nothing like an onion. It’s from the apiaceae family, with cousins such as dill and celery root. The raw bulb is crunchy and all parts of the plant have a fresh-tasting anise flavor. Cooking brings out the vegetal flavor and a bit of sweetness while mellowing the anise flavor. Refreshing when raw, comforting when cooked, savory or sweet, fennel can do pretty much anything you want and do it well.
When and Where to Buy Fennel
Fennel is a cool weather crop. It arrives at the farmers market in the fall and sticks around until early spring.
It’s available year-round in grocery stores, but for the freshest and best tasting, your local farmers market is the best place to buy fennel. Sometimes you can even find local wild fennel pollen at a farmers market.
Fennel is a minor crop in the U.S., so if the off-season selection isn’t coming from California or Arizona, it’s coming from much farther away. As much as you can, buy what’s grown closer to home when it’s in season.
How to Choose Good Fennel
Good fennel bulbs are white with some pale green markings and should be firm and heavy for their size. Avoid anything that’s yellowing or has brown spots and steer clear of any that are dry or starting to shrivel. The fronds should be fresh and perky without wilting or soggy spots.
Older fennel is dryer and tougher and has a stronger anise flavor, but it’s not the end of the world if you end up with some older bulbs. Discard the outer layers; what’s underneath won’t be as tough. If you think the flavor needs some toning down, give your cut fennel an ice bath. Cooking also mellows the flavor.
How to Store Fennel
Fennel bulbs and stalks are sturdy and can keep in the crisper drawer for around 5 days. You can go longer, but remember that the longer you leave it the tougher it gets.
The fronds, though, are a different matter. Fennel fronds can get limp pretty fast. If you like using them, it’s a good idea to snap off the sprigs and put them in a paper towel-lined container. It’s important to keep them dry since excess moisture will hasten their decline.
How to Prepare and Use Fennel
To use the fennel bulb, trim off the stalks and trim the other end if it looks brown. If the outer layer or layers are wilted, you can remove them. Slice according to the recipe. For roasting or braising, you may want to simply quarter the bulb or cut it into eights, producing wedges. Or you can chop to use in a soup or thinly slice to use in a salad.
Get the most out of fennel by using the stalks and fronds in addition to the bulb. The stalks may be stringy, but they’re full of flavor. Slice and use them in stocks or with other aromatics when grilling, roasting, or braising meats and fish.
The fronds are nice to garnish with and also make excellent additions to marinades or herby sauces. A whole fish stuffed with fennel fronds, lemon, and garlic before roasting is always a wonderful thing.
How to Freeze and Preserve Fennel
Fennel bulbs aren’t great for freezing and are best used fresh. The fronds and stalks can be stashed in a zip-top bag in the freezer for up to 3 months. Use them in cooked applications like broths, braises, soups, and sauces.
Fennel can be canned and preserved in many ways, but it is especially good pickled. For the canning-averse, quick pickles are a cinch and last a few weeks.
Easy Fennel Recipes:
- Sauteed Fennel With Fennel Fronds
- Roasted Chicken Thighs With Fennel and Orange
- Fennel Slaw With Mint Vinaigrette
- Fennel Radicchio and Endive Salad
- Salmon With Fennel Baked in Parchment