Fennel has a rounded pale green bulb, short stalks, and dark green feathery fronds that, to some people, almost looks like a form of celery. But fennel’s flavor emphatically sets it apart from celery and other stalk vegetables. The overlapping layers of bulb, the stalks, and the fronds all impart a mild, sweet flavor akin to licorice or anise. Because of its flavor, fennel is called “anise” in many markets. However, the vegetable is an entirely different plant from the herb anise.
A member of the parsley family, fennel is also known, in Italian neighborhoods, as finocchio. Europeans, particularly the Italians and the French, have been enthusiastic about fennel for many years and they grow more of it than anyone else. However, fennel is becoming more widely appreciated in the United States.
One cup of fennel also contains 45 mg of sodium—more than the sodium found in one stalk of celery—but because of its strong licorice flavor, most people don’t eat a lot of fennel every day.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Fennel in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of fennel
Baby fennel: This is a smaller, younger, slightly tenderer version of Florence fennel. Young fennel is sometimes available in farmers’ markets.
Florence fennel: This is the type of fennel most available in supermarkets. It has a squat, creamy-colored round bulb, with short green, celery-like stalks, and dark green feathery fronds.
Wild fennel: Small, with almost flat bulbs and lots of feathery fronds, this is occasionally available in farmers’ markets and specialty grocery stores.
Fennel seeds: The fennel seeds used as a kitchen herb come from a variety of fennel called common fennel, which does not develop a bulb, as do other fennels. The plant is actually grown not as a vegetable, but for its seeds. Fennel seeds are small, oval, and dull brown with a strong licorice flavor. This flavor is often associated with Italian-style sausages, because the seeds are added to the sausage meat.
How to choose the best fennel
No matter what size fennel you’re shopping for, the bulbs should be firm and clean, the stalks straight, and the feathery fronds fresh and green. If flowers are present on the stalks, the bulb is overmature.
The top of the bulb should be compact, with the stalks closely spaced rather than spread out. If the stalks are cut off, the cut ends should be fresh looking, not dry and white. Avoid bulbs that show any brown spots or signs of splitting.
How to use fennel
If you’ve bought a fennel bulb with the stalks attached, trim them off at the point where they meet the bulb. Set aside the stalks to use in soups and stews; they are too tough to eat as a vegetable, but they still have flavor. Save the feathery fronds to use as an herb as you would use dill weed.
Cut the fennel bulb in half and trim a little bit off the base. Then cut the bulb into slices or small chunks if you are going to use the fennel in soups or for braising. Slice the bulb into small slivers or sticks for stir-frying, sautéing, or eating raw. Some people cut out the dense core of the fennel bulb and discard it.
If you’ve bought wild or baby fennel, there’s no need to separate the stalks from the bulb, as they are both tender. Simply slice the two together and either stir-fry, sauté, or steam.
9 fennel recipe ideas
- Thinly slice fennel bulbs and toss with lemon juice and a good olive oil. Then top with shaved Parmesan for a Fennel-Parmesan salad.
- Serve sliced fresh fennel with goat cheese and fresh figs as an antipasto or even a dessert.
- Bake fennel along with a few garlic cloves, lemon zest, and a drizzle of olive oil—all tightly wrapped in foil—at 400° until tender.
- Add fresh fennel and fennel seeds to lean ground pork, shape into patties, and broil or grill.
- Cook fennel and potatoes together until tender and mash with a little olive oil.
- Use fennel in place of celery in stuffings, soups, and salads.
- Sauté fennel with apples and onions for an interesting side dish.
- Add diced fresh fennel to your favorite salsa.
- Add fennel and fennel seeds to broth when poaching fish or shellfish. Or add chunks of fennel to fish or seafood chowders.