Fennel is a unique herb that heightens the flavor of any dish. It’s a mystery why fennel isn’t as popular as other culinary wonders like rosemary and basil. Perhaps, it’s on its way to becoming a common household item.
Now, if you’re like me, you’ve probably come across a recipe that needs the magic of fennel, but you had to wonder why you don’t store some at home. No need to beat yourself up. There are several substitutes out there that will do the job. They may not taste exactly like fennel but they’re close enough that your family and friends won’t notice. Take a look at our list of the best fennel substitutes that you possibly already have. But first, let’s all be clear what fennel really is.
What Is Fennel? Should You Call It Herb or Vegetable?
Fennel is a perennial plant, which means that it can live for two years or more. It comes in two forms: herb fennel and Florence fennel. The herb fennel looks like dill with thin stems that grow yellow flowers on top. Florence fennel also has dill-like leaves, but it’s shorter and valued for its thick bulb at the base. It’s also treated more like a vegetable. They both have the same licorice taste and both are used for culinary purposes.
Fennel is said to bite like celery and its pleasant taste makes it an ideal vegetable to enhance the taste of any dish. When people mention that they use fennel, they most likely mean Florence fennel and its voluminous bulb which has many uses. This bulb can be sliced like shallot and mixed in almost any vegetable-based recipe.
Why Some People Think Anise and Fennel Are the Same
Because fennel is not as well-known as other plants, many mistake it for other herbs or vegetables. One, in particular, is anise, which also tastes like licorice — a polarizing food that’s compared to the saccharin in artificial sweetener.
Anise is commonly used as a flavoring agent in alcoholic drinks like anisette and in various products like meats, dairy, and mints, while fennel is the one more actively used in cooking recipes. Although they have similar smells and tastes, anise and fennel are two completely different plants. Sometimes, what’s labeled as ‘anise’ in the supermarket is actually fennel.
What Are Some Health Benefits of Fennel?
Like most plants, fennel is rich in nutrition and certified good for your health. Here are some notable benefits of including fennel in your food:
Fennel is abundant with vitamins and minerals.
Vitamin C is a major vitamin found in fennel that helps fight free radicals from invading your body and causing inflammation in the form of arthritis or joint degeneration. It has other vitamins and minerals like potassium, folate, manganese, calcium, iron, copper, among others.
Fennel can help your stomach and skin.
Fennel can be ingested as a cure for several digestive problems like bloating, gas in the intestines, and appetite loss. Some women also apply it directly to the skin to prevent too much body hair from growing, to ease menopausal symptoms, and to protect against sunburn.
Fennel can treat colic in babies.
Fennel has antispasmodic properties that help control spasms in the airways. Some mothers use it as gripe water to calm babies that cry frequently. It’s also useful as a galactagogue to help breastfeeding mothers.
List of 11 Tastiest Fennel Substitutes to Satisfy Your Cravings
Despite its benefits and uses, I understand that some people don’t feel like eating fennel because of the taste—probably for the same reasons they hate black licorice. Fortunately, there are many alternatives to fennel, particularly the fennel bulb used as a vegetable. Some of these are probably in your kitchen already, so let’s dive in.
Celery is often compared to fennel because they both have that distinct crunch. If you just realized that you don’t have fennel at home, then you might have celery or you can easily get one from the store.
What’s more is celery keeps majority of its nutrition after steaming, so you’ll surely benefit from its high fiber content that helps control cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
It also has a pleasant smell that will be great for your vegetable soup and meat recipes.
Another familiar substitute is parsley. This herb is the perfect replacement for fennel leaves. It’s an excellent source of folic acid, a critical B vitamin that helps keep your heart healthy and prevent heart attack and stroke. It’s also abundant in vitamin K with an impressive 574% of the daily recommended value.
You’ll also crave parsley’s cool flavor. When buying parsley, choose the ones with vibrant green leaves as you know they’re fresh. You might also like to try curly parsley for its milder taste, but if you don’t like the extra time cleaning, the flat variety is probably better.
I also recommend that you chop parsley into tiny pieces to get a stronger taste, especially for soups and heated dishes. For salads, bigger pieces are best. If you want a healthy, tasty substitute, this is it.
Artichokes are interesting-looking veggies that are absolutely good for you. In fact, they’re filled to the brim with antioxidants, ranking 7th place out of 20 antioxidant-rich foods according to USDA.
Behind its thorny appearance lies a mild citrus taste that you will crave for. Artichokes can be braised, baked, grilled, or boiled, but the best way to cook them is by steaming. This helps retain its nutrients.
When buying artichokes, it’s best to choose those that feel heavy as it confirms that they have enough moisture inside. The leaves of the artichoke should be closed tightly or with just a little space. If they’re wide open, that produce is probably old.
A part of the onion family, leeks have been part of Asian and European cooking for thousands of years. They have low sodium content and very little saturated fat plus they help the liver get rid of excessive fat.
When shopping for leeks, look for those with a strong white base and crispy, vibrant green leaves. They’re great if you want your dish to be sweet and tasty.
You can either steam or fry them and use them in pies, soups, and casseroles. Just make sure that you clean them well as they tend to get dirty between leaves.
What better alternative there is than something that looks similar to fennel? Onion is an excellent replacement for the fennel bulb as it is similarly thick and has a sweet aroma.
White onions are best for cooking especially for sautées and preparing sauces and salads. They give any dish a sweet taste. If you want something milder, try red onions for something unassuming like a sandwich.
Also known as Mexican pepper leaf, hoja santa is a pleasant-smelling herb that’s shaped like a heart and feels smooth to the touch. Mexicans use it in sauces, stews, and, interestingly, in chocolate drinks. They also love it as a tamales wrap.
Choose this if you want your dish to have a peppery taste that’s similar to that of fennel. This leaf is also a great blend for cilantro and lime, so don’t hesitate to use them together.
As I said, dill looks a lot like fennel leaves, so it’s no surprise that you can replace fennel with this one. It’s a lesser-known plant that has been in use for a very long time. Did you know that it was even used in Medieval Times as a protection against witches and curses? Today, people simply have it to combat their stomach problems and to complement their cooking.
Dill is a delicate herb commonly used in salads and with eggs. Many avid cooks grow their own dill, one reason being it easily wilts. If you bought dill but couldn’t use it, I suggest freezing the stems and heads. This keeps the flavor intact.
This is an excellent fennel substitute because it smells like fennel and anise seeds, so if the aroma is an important factor in your recipe, this is the one you need.
This cabbage-like vegetable is a popular choice in Asia. The name bok choy means “small white greens” in Chinese, so it makes sense that it’s a type of Chinese cabbage. If you want something that offers a similar texture as fennel, bok choy can bring the same crunch that fennel has.
Another reason to eat bok choy is the fact that it’s rich in vitamins, particularly vitamin A and C with its vitamin A content exceeding your daily requirement. A Harvard study even recommends that bok choy and collards are better sources of calcium than milk.
While grocery shopping, check the color of your bok choy. Make sure the leaves are bright green and healthy. You’ll notice that the leaves are similar to spinach leaves while the stems are whiter than celery’s green stems.
You can easily add these leafy greens to soups or stir-fry them with garlic and onions. It’s also good for grilling, stewing, and steaming.
Mexican Avocado Leaves
Another alternative to fennel leaves is the Mexican variety of the much-loved avocado. Unlike other varieties, Mexican Avocado leaves give off a subtle aroma similar to fennel. They can be used dried or fresh, and they add a creamy flavor to any dish.
Before using, it’s best to toast the leaves as this awakens the dormant taste. You can then grind the leaves like any spice and add to soups, broths, and any meaty dish.
Its taste may not be as strong as fennel’s, but it’s an excellent replacement, especially if you’re not a big fan of fennel’s licorice taste in the first place.
Anise seeds are no doubt the best replacement for fennel seeds. Like fennel, anise seeds have a licorice taste but anise has a slightly stronger flavor. It’s also considered a spice instead of a vegetable.
When using anise seeds, consider the fact that it has a stronger taste, so you shouldn’t use the same amount of anise seeds as you would with fennel. This can ruin your dish.
Other fennel seed substitutes are caraway seeds, cumin seeds, dill seeds, or even licorice itself (but don’t use too much as it has a stronger taste than both anise and fennel).
Pernod is a type of French drink made from anise, which is why it has similar tastes to anise and fennel. It was once banned in the US but was legalized again in 2007 and continues today as a fixture in gourmet cooking.
Although admittedly expensive (prices range from $30-$75), Pernod is a sure way to elevate your cooking experience. Many chefs use it for seafood dishes, and some say that its licorice taste is even stronger than fennel’s. A splash of Pernod is the perfect way to add sweetness and a kick of flavor to any dish. If you want to go fancy, choose Pernod.
Suggestions for Choosing the Best Fennel Substitute
After so many choices, you’re probably wondering which substitute you should choose. Well, the choice is entirely up to and what your priorities are. For one, if availability is important to you, then, among the vegetable types, the easiest to find are celery and parsley. Your dish may not have the same taste as fennel, but in some cases, this is a good thing as not everyone likes fennel’s licorice taste.
When it comes to herbs, you might want to consider anise seeds as they have the closest taste to that of fennel seeds. However, if you’re trying to replace the bulb part of fennel, then seeds are not the best option. You should select among the vegetable varieties, particularly bok choy and artichoke. They will add volume to your dish although they don’t have the same licorice taste.
If you want something that tastes strictly like fennel or even stronger, then you have two obvious choices: anise seeds and Pernod liquor. Maybe this is your chance to give these exotic ingredients a chance. You never know it, but you might develop an affinity for their unique tastes.
Fennel is an absolutely versatile plant that’s yet to become a household name in the world, but it deserves to be. All of its parts, from flowers to the bulb, have a unique purpose in the culinary experience. Plus, it goes well with many other vegetables like carrots and potatoes as well as roasted meals involving fish and meats. Basically, if you want your dish to taste different (and better), fennel is a must-try.
Still, there are several reasons why not many people include fennel in their cooking—chief among them is a special type of aversion to all things licorice, which is exactly how fennel tastes. A simpler possibility is the fact that fennel just isn’t available. Whatever the case may be, choose the fennel substitute that best suits your individual taste. Each of them comes with distinctive traits that I’m sure you’ll appreciate.