Ingredients

Fennel Is, Without a Doubt, Our Favorite Spring Herb

Plus, how to have fun with fronds.

April 25, 2022
Photo by James Ransom
Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
 
This week we’ve got fronds on the brain—fennel fronds, that is. You can find fresh fennel year round, but it really peaks during spring. Once you get your hands on fennel, you’ll probably be taken by the pleasant, anise-like aroma and then immediately think to yourself: “Okay…but what do I do with this?” Because as cool as fennel is to look at, and as lovely as it smells, it’s not the most common herb to cook with. Adding crushed fennel seeds to meatballs? Duh! But roasted fresh fennel wedges as part of a weeknight meal? Can’t say that’s exactly in my repertoire. 
 
So if you want to start cooking with fennel, we’ll go over what to look for when selecting fennel, how to store it, and how to use every part of the plant from bulb to stalk to fronds—and more! Licorice haters fear not, there might be hope for you and fennel after all.
 

What to Look For

First things first: select small to medium-sized white fennel bulbs that are heavy and firm with bright green feathery fronds. Avoid bulbs that are really large, have moist spots, or appear shriveled and dried out. If there are brown spots, leave the fennel on the shelf. Bulbs and stalks should be free of cracks, splits, and any discoloration or bruising.
 
The fennel you buy at the market is also known as bulb fennel, Florence fennel, or finocchio, though due to its similar flavor, it sometimes gets confused with anise. Fact: anise is an entirely different plant, but the two do come together to flavor absinthe. (Think about that the next time you sip one of these.) 
 
As for fennel seeds, you’ll find those with other dried spices. For reference, they’re a little bit bigger than chia seeds but smaller than cardamom pods. You can use them whole or crush them in a mortar and pestle so they’re more powder-like, removing some of the texture while highlighting their pungent earthy flavor.
 

How to Store Fennel

Similar to carrots, if you’re storing fennel in the fridge, you’ll want to separate the stalks from the bulb and store the two parts separately in plastic bags. Because of the delicate nature of the fronds, they tend to go bad more quickly than the bulbs. For a non-plastic-encased option, try storing fennel upright in a cup of water on the counter like a bouquet of flowers. Either way, try to use your fennel within a few days—any more than that, and it starts to lose flavor.
 

Root-to-Stem Dining

Like celery, the entire fennel plant can be consumed—there’s a ton of flavor in every part of it. Here's how to make the most of every last bit.
 

Bulb 

If you’re still craving comfort foods, try roasted fennel on a flatbread, paired with celery in a gratin, or with braised potatoes. To roast fennel, cut the bulbs lengthwise, cut out the core, and slice it as thin or thick as you like. Toss the fennel with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast in a 425℉ over for 25 to 30 minutes. Spring can’t come fast enough? Then use your fennel bulb in a Greek salad or a shaved salad with celery. If you're not a fan of licorice, ease yourself into fennel's charms by roasting it. Pair it with couscous, or blend it into this white bean dip; roasting fennel will bring out its sweetness and soften its flavor.

Stalks

According to The Barbeque! Bible, you can dry fennel stalks in the oven to preserve them. Just remove all fronds, and arrange the stalks in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake them at 200°F for 3 hours, then turn off the heat and let them hang out in the oven overnight to finish drying. Mark Bittman suggests grilling fish on the stalks (keep the fronds attached for this one, or use your just-dried stalks), and they can also be used to make broths, infused oils, or in place of celery in dishes.
 

Fronds

Chop up the fronds and use them like you would other fresh herbs. They're lovely in a pesto, an egg or potato salad, or as a garnish, like on this soup.
 

Seeds

You’re probably familiar with seeing fennel seeds in sausages and stews (those “seeds” are actually fruits, but everyone refers to them as seeds). Aside from using them in crackers or a genius cabbage recipe, their subtle licorice flavor and nuttiness can even serve as a zippy breath freshener!
 

Pollen

It may be a little more elusive, but fennel pollen has some diehard fans. It's been said that “If angels sprinkled a spice from their wings, this would be it.” Sold yet? The pollen can be sprinkled on meat and fish, paired with mushrooms, or even with ice cream. Look for it in specialty stores or online, or if you have fennel in your garden, you can let it go to seed and collect your own: be patient, forgo harvesting the bulbs, and you'll be rewarded with sunny yellow pollen-filled flowers. If you want to be truly wild, go foraging.

There are so many more ways you can use fennel and all of its parts. What's your favorite way to eat it?

This article was updated in April 2022 by our editors, who wanted to show off their love for fennel again.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ander
    Ander
  • Suzy Shedd
    Suzy Shedd
  • fdbtk
    fdbtk
  • Lois Sandy Marshall
    Lois Sandy Marshall
  • LB (Laurie Beth)
    LB (Laurie Beth)
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.

26 Comments

Ander May 31, 2022
I have grown both Florence fennel and herb fennel in my gardens. Rabbits love the Florence fennel and I finally gave up trying to grow them. I tried herb fennel three years ago and as someone else said, it is invasive. It should be grown in its own separate bed or in a pot. Also, fennel is allelopathic to most other plants, spreading a chemical from its roots that may kill other plants around it. (Similar to black walnut.) In spite of all that, I still grow fennel because it tastes so fresh and good, especially in the spring when it’s one of the first things to green up. I pick some fronds every morning to add to my breakfast salad, and I plan to save seeds this year for the first time. I currently have bronze fennel growing, which looks nice added to bouquets. It is so easy to grow, I hope more people add a pot of it to their windowsills.
 
Suzy S. May 3, 2022
Fennel frond pesto is spectacular!
 
fdbtk May 1, 2022
I love fresh fennel bulb raw! As a kid my (Italian) aunts always had a bowl on the holiday table, crunchy, juicy and sweet. I cut the stalks and cook with dried beans, or else they go in soups chopped fine. I’ve used them in tuna fish salad when I was out of celery. Also keep on hand some roasted seeds to munch for digestion.
 
Lois S. October 20, 2016
My intention is to use them as part of the breading for my gluten-free, dairy-free oven-baked fish and chicken tenders. I'll bet it will taste wonderful!
 
LB (. April 7, 2013
I have harvested pollen from fennel three seasons now in Virginia..each one tasting a bit different. Have yet to see in a food shop. Most special.
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. April 10, 2013
I'm determined to add fennel to our garden this year just to harvest the pollen!
 
Judy K. July 23, 2018
How do you harvest the pollen. Thanks, Kay
 
Nancy April 26, 2022
How do you use it? Also, are there recommended commercial brands? I bought some years ago from Zingerman's and found it both lacking in flavor and expensive. So, a one time purchase. But willing to try again for a reason or a better product.
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. April 27, 2022
Nancy, did you get it from Zingerman's Mail Order? Please let them know, they'll replace it for you! That's where I get mine from and would recommend it to others, it's really flavorful, I wonder if you got an off batch. I like it on springy vegetables (asparagus, snap peas, etc), pasta dishes, on goat cheese...
 
Nancy April 30, 2022
Lindsay-Jean - Yes, Zingerman's Mail Order. Glad to hear it tastes good and that maybe I got a dud batch. Also, good to know they will replace unsatisfactory products but that jar of fennel pollen is history, long since. However, your note gives me incentive to try it again...hello after a long time, Nancy
PS Recommended here a few days ago your book on cooking with scraps.
 
La Boite a epices in NYC sells it - online sale, too. I bought some and have found it vibrant and one of those elusive, magical ingredients for savory dishes. Last week I used it in a black barley beet “risotto” I made for the first time and couldn’t figure out how to season. It was a wonderful addition.
 
Here in the high desert it is exuberant enough in my garden to be mildly invasive- a word to the wise.
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. May 1, 2022
Oh thanks Nancy, much appreciated!
 
lifeofcolors March 9, 2013
I love fennel, ever since I first got the courage up to try it many years ago! :-)
 
toddnyc March 9, 2013
Thanks for the reminder! One night I whipped up for a last-minute dinner party Braised Fennel in a Vermouth-Molasses Broth. Luckily I wrote it down while tossing this and that into the pan. You jogged my memory, and taste buds!
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. March 10, 2013
Wow, that sounds fantastic!
 
Judy K. July 23, 2018
Could you share your recipe with me....😁
 
Diana P. March 8, 2013
The other day I made Marcella Hazan's whole fish with finocchio and it was sublime. Made in one large skillet on the stovetop, the fennel mellows out and gets caramelized, the fish (branzino in our case) cooks up moist and perfect. Caramelized fennel is impossible to stop eating, though I confess I love fennel in all its forms, so I'm biased.
 
susanm March 8, 2013
Good post. I have been single-handedly trying to make fennel a go-to veg for all the cooks I know. I talk about it endlessly. To the point that recently a friend did an eye roll when I described the shaved fennel salad I had made the night before. Growing up, my grandmother served shaved fennel & sliced oranges, topped with cracked black pepper and a good drizzle of olive oil. Divine! I serve it often to guests and they are confused, but usually enjoy it.
 
sexyLAMBCHOPx March 8, 2013
perfect timing on this post. have two in the fridge now!
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. March 10, 2013
Hurray! Please share what all you do with them!
 
Panfusine March 8, 2013
stalks of Fresh green immature fennel seed are an interesting snack sold by street vendors in Mumbai. AS kids we used to walk home nibbling away on them!
Wonder if the Union square market sells them in season like they sell bunches of green dill & coriander
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. March 10, 2013
How fun, thanks for sharing!
 
Sharon May 2, 2022
Yes! I have wild fennel growing in my garden and use the plump green seeds and lacy fronds extensively. The wild plant is much more aromatic than anything in a grocery store.. I add the fronds to all manner of brines for pork, salmon, etc., and in Courtbouillons. Also, whenever making any seafood stew, like Bouillabaisse, that calls for Pastis or Pernod, I make an extraction by crushing the fresh green seeds in a mortar & pestle with a little brandy (or whatever I have on hand). It faithfully produces the desired, anise flavor without springing for an entire costly bottle. The roots of wild fennel sink very deep and don't produce edible bulbs. But everything else is divine, including the green dried seeds and heavenly fennel pollen. But caution! The dried seeds spread EVERYWHERE, so diligently pull up any new baby plants or they will absolutely take over your entire yard. They sure keep us busy - but it's worth it!
 
Kenzi W. March 8, 2013
Fennel seed breath mints?! You just blew my mind.
 
Panfusine March 8, 2013
They have them in a bowl near the doorway of almost every Indian restaurant.. Its not just a breath freshener, its also considered a digestive.