Fennel is one of those spices that gets purchased once for a recipe and forgotten about. Sometimes it never even makes it into the dish and gets banished to the back of the spice cabinet. For a forgotten spice, fennel sure packs a big punch.
Fennel looks like onions or leeks but tastes, and smells, like licorice and anise. It’s a sort of sweet, smoky flavor with a bit of spice. When uncooked, it has a beautiful crunchy texture and when cooked it becomes softer.
If you are like most people you’ll probably have strong feelings about licorice. But if you’re on the other side, don’t let that scare you away. It’s a fairly mild licorice flavor but you’ll know immediately what it is.
Fresh Fennel vs Fennel Seeds
While these two ways to eat fennel are more similar than they are different, there are some slight variations. See if fresh fennel or fennel seeds are better for your recipe.
When using the fennel fresh, you’ll get a much more mild, delicate licorice flavor. If you eat the plant raw, it’s crunchy and fibrous. However, if you cook it, you get a softer and silky texture.
The seeds have a more pungent and intense flavor. If you fall on the ‘no’ side of licorice, it might be better to stick to the fresh fennel.
How to Change the Flavor of Fennel
Maybe you’re still a little turned off by the licorice flavor, but are still intrigued.
Oven Roast Your Fennel
To completely change the taste and texture of fennel, you can oven roast it. By roasting your fennel you’ll tone down the licorice flavor to a pleasant aftertaste. In addition, you bring forth a nutty flavor and your fennel bulb will take on a creamy consistency.
You can also try adding either fresh fennel or fennel seeds to a salad. Then add some spices, things that go well with fennel, such as garlic, rosemary, basil, or oregano. You can keep trying different spices or adjusting their ratios until you find the sweet spot.
What is Similar to Fennel
If you want something similar, but less licorice tasting, try caraway seeds. They have a more nutty, peppery flavor, with only a tiny hit of licorice. They also have a little bitterness and citrus too.
If you’re using fennel in a soup, celery or leeks are a great choice, as they have similar textures, if not similar flavors.
How Can You Tell If Your Fennel is Bad
Remember that pungent licorice and anise smell? Well if your fennel has gone bad the smell will either completely disappear, or worse, smell rotten.
If you have fennel seeds that look okay but don’t have an aroma, try heating them up. Sometimes warming up the fennel helps to release flavor and aromas trapped in the seeds.
In addition to the smell, bad fennel loses its green color and starts to turn brown. The bulb gets soft and the fennel will lose its crispness.
On the surface, it may seem like fennel is a love it or hate it spice. However, there are actually different ways to eat and prepare fennel that will change its characteristics.
If you’re concerned about the licorice flavor, you can use fresh fennel as opposed to seeds. Also, try roasting it to bring out a nutty flavor with a creamy texture.