Cooking and Eating Fennel (Including Leaves and Seeds)

Fennel is a feathery herb and bulb vegetable with a fresh flavor with hints of licorice. Traditionally the leaves were used when cooking fish but there is so much more to this unique herb and vegetable. Every part of the fennel plant can be eaten including the leaves, bulb, flowers, and seeds. So read on to find out more about cooking and eating fennel including some delicious recipes you can try at home.

Bulb Fennel - Cooking and Eating Fennel
Bulb Fennel

What is Fennel?

Fennel is a flowering plant in the carrot family but it is not a root vegetable. It originated in the Mediterranean region but is grown all over the world today. 

The most common type of fennel is Florence fennel also known as Anise fennel. Florence fennel is a vegetable fennel and is shorter than its herb fennel cousin, which grows between 3 and 5 feet tall.

Fennel Growing in the Garden - Cooking and Eating Fennel
Fennel growing in the garden.

Florence fennel has feathery leaves and a yellow flower. The long stems come together at the bottom to form a crisp bulb that grows above the ground. The leaves, stalks, and bulb have a fresh flavor with a mild hint of licorice. The flowers and seeds have a more potent licorice flavor. Fennel is one of the three main herbs used in the preparation of absinthe, a popular alcoholic drink.

Fennel can also grow naturally in many parts all over the world. Wild Fennel can grow so abundantly that in some places it has been declared an invasive weed. Wild fennel is edible and can be foraged for its stalks, leaves, flowers, and seeds, though, unlike its cultivated cousin, it does not form a bulb.

What Parts of Fennel are Edible?

All parts of the fennel plant are edible. Traditionally the feathery leaves were used when cooking fish but today the crisp bulb is the most popular part of the vegetable. The stalks, flowers, and seeds are also edible and delicious.

How to Eat Fennel

Eating Fennel bulb

The fennel bulb is crisp and has a similar texture to celery. When cooked it caramelizes and develops a sweeter flavor retaining the licorice overtones. It becomes tender and soft.

Slicing the fennel bulb thinly before sautéing ensures they caramelize evenly becoming sweet and soft.

To roast the fennel bulb cut it into large wedges, lay them on an oven pan, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast in the oven for about half an hour until they are caramelized on the edges and soft inside.

Roasted Fennel - Cooking and Eating Fennel
Roasted Fennel

Eating Fennel stalks

Fennel stalks are quite tough and can be a bit woody making them difficult to eat. They add wonderful flavor to stocks and broths. Younger stalks are often crunchy and not tough and these can be chopped up into stir-fries, salads, pasta or roasted as you would the bulb.

The stalks, even older woody ones, are great to use as a bed when roasting chicken and other meat as they keep their shape while imparting their flavor into the meat.

How to Eat Fennel leaves

Fennel Leaves - Cooking and Eating Fennel

The feathery fennel leaves can be used in salads, soups, and pasta. Traditionally fennel leaves were used when cooking fish and pair very well with all seafood. They add a unique flavor to vegetable stocks and broths.

Fennel pairs beautifully with tomato when making sauces. Chopped fennel leaves are a delicious addition to any omelet or scrambled eggs.

Eating Fennel seeds

Fennel Seeds - Cooking and Eating Fennel
Fennel Seeds

Fennel seeds look similar to cumin and have a licorice flavor similar to anise seed. They are brown or green when fresh and slowly turn grey as they dry. Green seeds are the best when cooking but dried seeds are often used too.

The addition of fennel seeds is an important seasoning in many Indian and Middle Eastern dishes and is also an ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder. In Italy, fennel seeds are an important ingredient in making sausage. In India, roasted fennel seeds are used as an after-meal digestive and breath freshener.

Fennel seeds are often used in baking to add a licorice flavor to the goods. So they can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.

A spoonful of fennel seeds can be crushed slightly and added to boiling water to create a delicious and healthy fennel tea.

How to Eat Fennel Flowers

Flowering Fennel - Cooking and Eating Fennel
Fennel Flowers

The small yellow fennel flowers are the most potent but also the most expensive part of the fennel plant. They are sometimes known as fennel pollen. A little pollen goes a long way when added to soups, stews, sauces, and meat rubs. They can be used raw in salads or dried and added to dishes. The flowers can also be dried and used to make fennel tea.

What Parts of Fennel Can be Eaten Raw?

Fennel Salad - Cooking and Eating Fennel
Fennel Salad with Peaches and Arugula

The fennel bulb is delicious raw. It can also be sliced thinly and marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. This marinated fennel bulb is great on its own or as an addition to a summer salad.

Young fennel stalks can be used as one would use celery in salads and smoothies.

The raw fennel leaves can be chopped up and added to salads or used to garnish pasta and chicken or fish dishes.

The raw fennel flowers can be added to salads and pasta but they have a very potent flavor and should be used sparingly.

How to Buy Fennel

When buying fennel at the grocery store or farmers market choose carefully. Look for a bulb that is heavy and white. Make sure it has no cracks or moist areas and that no parts are starting to turn brown. The leaves should be bright green and the stalks should be crisp.

As fennel dries, it loses its flavor so choose the freshest fennel to ensure maximum flavor.

Fennel will last about four days in the fridge but will have more flavor the sooner you eat it. Once the fennel plant has flowering buds, the bulb is overripe.

Dried fennel seeds can last about 6 months in a sealed container. Be sure to check the expiry date when buying fennel seeds.

Storing Fennel and Preserving Ideas

Fennel Bulbs - Storing Fennel and Preserving Ideas

Fennel bulbs, stalks and leaves only last a few days in the fridge and should be eaten sooner rather than later for maximum flavor. To maximize their shelf life do not wash them until you are ready to use them. Fennel that has come from your garden or farmers market will last a few more days than grocery store-bought fennel.

The leaves and stalks freeze well. Simply rinse in water, dry, and place in a sealed plastic bag. To make using frozen fennel leaves more convenient you can chop the fennel up relatively finely and place it in an ice tray. Make sure each ice cube is packed full of fennel. Pour water into the ice cube hollows to fill up the gaps. Freeze. Remove the fennel ice cubes from the ice tray and place them in a plastic bag in the freezer. Now when your recipe calls for fennel all you need to do is drop one or more fennel ice cubes into the pot.

As the fennel bulb has a high water content it does not freeze as well as the leaves and stalks. If you do want to freeze the fennel bulb, blanch the bulbs first before placing them in a freezer bag in the freezer. You can cut the bulb into wedges before blanching to make it easier to use later.

The bulb can be pickled to lengthen its shelf life. Pickled fennel is great in salads or on its own as a side dish.

Fennel seeds can be dried and kept in an airtight container for up to 6 months.

Fennel flowers can be dried and kept in an airtight container for up to 2 years. An easy way to dry the flowers is to hang them upside down in a paper bag. When they are dry, simply give them a good shake and the flowers should fall to the bottom of the bag.

Health Benefits of Fennel

Fennel is low in calories but high in nutrients. It is packed with dietary fiber, potassium and vitamins A, C and B6. Animal studies have found that fennel may reduce aging-related memory deficit and reduce hot flashes in menopausal women.  Due to fennel’s high potassium content, people with kidney problems should avoid eating large amounts of fennel.

Fennel  Recipes

Here is a selection of delicious fennel recipes you can try.

Fennel Recipes Using Bulb Fennel

Baked Trout with Broccoli, Apple and Fennel Slaw  – from Martha Stewart. Traditionally fennel has been served with fish. This recipe is a fresh twist on the old tradition. The slaw is so delicious it can be used as a side to any dish and works wonderfully with pulled pork or at a barbecue.

Crunchy Gochujang Fennel – from Bon Appetite.  If you’re looking for a spicy side that you can prepare a few days ahead then this dish is what you are looking for.

Caramelized Fennel and Onion Pizza – from Love and Olive Oil. This delicious pizza recipe works well as a comforting vegetarian meal. It is also perfect as a starter or snack at a casual outdoor get-together.

Fennel Recipes Using Fennel Fronds

Fennel Fronds Pesto – from Holy Cow Vegan. A delicious recipe for a vegan fennel frond pesto. Mix it through pasta, use it as a dip, or a topping for your toast or pizza.

Pasta with Sausage and Fennel Fronds – from Erica Julson. A lovely weeknight meal of pasta using the tasty fennel fronds.

Fresh Mint and Fennel Frond Tea – from Olives for Dinner. A refreshing tea made from mint and fennel fronds – so simple but delicious.

Fennel Recipes Using Fennel Seeds

Labneh with Pink Peppercorns, Coriander, and Fennel Seeds – from Real Simple. This yogurt-cheese-like spread is the perfect thing to change up your usual chip and dip snack repertoire.

Upside Down Orange Cake with Fennel – from A Couple Cooks. A cornmeal cake that combines the classic flavors of orange and fennel for a tasty treat. Serve as dessert or impress your friends with afternoon tea.

Sauteed Mushrooms with Fennel Seeds – from Framed Recipes. These sauteed mushrooms with the addition of fennel seeds takes only minutes to make and can be served as a main dish by topping steamed rice or as a side dish.

Fennel Recipes Using Fennel Pollen and Flowers

Spaghetti with Fennel Pollen – from Serious Eats. Fennel pollen is rare and rather expensive. But if you do have access to it and you would like to try it, this pasta recipe really showcases the flavor of the fennel pollen.

Fennel Pollen, Honey and Ricotta Ice Cream Baked Alaska – from Twigg Studios. This decadent dessert is a truly special occasion treat. While there are quite a few steps to this recipe, if you’re looking for a celebration dessert, this one is sure to impress.

Fennel Recipes Using Fennel Stalks

Creamed Fennel Soup – from Veg Kitchen. This heartwarming soup recipe uses the fennel bulb, stalks, and fronds for garnish. A wonderful recipe using all the fennel.

Further reading:

Eating Broccoli Leaves and Flowers With Recipe Ideas

What To Do With Celery Leaves (Preserving and Recipe Ideas)

Eating Carrot Tops With Recipe Ideas

Cooking and Eating Fennel