What is Fennel—and What Can I Do With It?
From bulb to stalk to frond, here's how to grow, select, and cook with fennel, the sweet anise-flavored veggie that deserves a spot on your plate.
You've probably spotted fennel at your local farmers' market during chillier months—but what exactly is this bulbous, feathery plant? Native to the Mediterranean region, fennel is one of Italy's most popular vegetables. Most fennel available in American markets is grown in California. The type you'll find—Florence fennel (sometimes labeled "fresh anise")—has a bulb-like base, stalks like celery, and feathery leaves that resemble Queen Anne's lace.
Like celery, the entire fennel plant is edible and lends itself to a wide variety of cooking applications. In fact, this mildly licorice-flavored plant is a member of the parsley family. Lastly, we can't ignore the health benefits of fennel. Just one cup of fennel contains almost 20 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin C. You'll also find plenty of iron, fiber, and potassium. Here's everything you need to know about fennel, plus plenty of delicious and easy fennel recipes.
How to Grow Fennel
Peak growing season for fennel is fall and winter. However, home gardeners can also slip in a quick planting in spring for an early summer harvest. When planting, look for compact bulbs that are relatively heavy and firm. Avoid those that are splitting or browning, or have other injuries.
Fennel enjoys cool weather—not hot, but not freezing. Although it’s easy to germinate from seeds sown directly into the garden after the soil has warmed, transplants are helpful to get a head start in spring or in raising a fall crop that must be started in the heat of summer. It takes about three months for fennel to produce the bulb, so do the math to determine when you need to start and if you have enough time before the weather turns hot or starts freezing.
Plant fennel seeds or transplants in a sunny, well-drained bed that has been amended with compost. Thin seedlings to stand about 12 inches apart. Keep the bed moist, and be sure to feed your fennel every two to three weeks with a liquid fertilizer. After the bulb grows to about 2 inches in length, cover it with soil or mulch, which will make it tender. Snip off any flower stalks that may form to prevent the bulb from splitting. When it’s time to harvest, use clippers to snip under the bulb and cut the taproot.
Try planting fennel varieties such as Zefa Fino or Trieste—they resist the urge to flower, channeling their energy into the bulb instead.
How to Buy Fennel
If you aren't growing your own, fennel is widely available at most grocery stores year-round or at farmers market when in season. Look for small, heavy, white bulbs that are firm and free of cracks, browning, or moist areas. The stalks should be crisp, with feathery, bright-green fronds. Wrapped in plastic, fennel keeps for just a few days in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator; the flavor fades as it dries out.
How to Cook Fennel
All parts of the fennel plant—bulb, stalk, and the feathery fronds—are edible, and will add texture and flavor to salads, slaws, pastas, and more. Thinly sliced raw fennel bulb adds a sweet licorice flavor and crunchy texture to salads. To slice the bulb, stand it on the root end and cut vertically with a sharp knife of mandolin. To soften the flavor of the bulb, try braising, sautéing, roasting, or grilling it.
Fennel stalks can take the place of celery in soups and stews, and can be used as a "bed" for roasted chicken and meats. Use fennel fronds as a garnish, or chop them and use as you would other herbs, like dill or parsley. Oh, and one last thing—fennel and seafood go together like peas in a pod.
Want to learn how to cook fennel at home? These easy fennel recipes will show you how to make the most of this versatile veggie from frond to bulb.
Raw fennel bulb packs a crisp texture and distinctive licorice flavor—here, we showcase it alongside cucumbers and bell peppers in this crunchy-creamy salad, then top it with toasted panko breadcrumbs and fresh dill. (View Recipe: Cucumber-Fennel Salad)
Crab, Fennel, and Basil Spaghetti
This dish combines delicate, sweet crab meat with anise-y fennel, which play nicely together for a simple, light pasta, perfect for the warmer weather. (View Recipe: Crab, Fennel, and Basil Spaghetti)
Blackened Shrimp with Citrus and Roasted Fennel
Roasted fennel has a soft, slightly crunchy texture and caramelized, slightly sweet flavor. Here, fennel and shallots become tender as they roast, and the orange slices become concentrated and fragrant. (View Recipe: Blackened Shrimp with Citrus and Roasted Fennel)
Fennel, Tomato, and Feta Skillet Bake
Sliced fennel bulb becomes mellow and sweet once sautéed and braised in chopped, strained tomatoes. Hang onto the fennel fronds—finely chopped, they make a pretty (and tasty) garnish. Serve as a side to sauteed or grilled shrimp, halibut, flounder, or any other mild white fish. (View Recipe: Fennel, Tomato, and Feta Skillet Bake)
Wilted Rainbow Chard and Shaved Fennel Salad
Lightly sautéed chard leaves and stems are the base of this slightly warm chard and fennel salad. Look for a small fennel bulb with the lacy green fronds still attached. If fennel isn’t available at your market, a small onion would be a good substitute here. (View Recipe: Wilted Rainbow Chard and Saved Fennel Salad)
To see more ways to cook with fennel, check out our complete fennel recipe collection for plenty of delicious inspiration.