You may not think you’re familiar with fennel, but you’ve definitely tasted it before. From flavoring pizza sauce to Italian sausage, the flavorful plant serves its fair share of culinary purposes. But what is fennel, exactly—and how should you use it at home? If you’ve found yourself asking these questions, you’ve come to the right place.
What Is Fennel?
Fennel is a flowering plant species in the carrot family. It’s native to the Mediterranean region, but it can be found growing wild in the U.S., Italy, Australia, and many other parts of the world. Though its delicate yellow flowers and tasty leaves are appealing, fennel is actually considered an invasive weed in the U.S. and Australia.
From its stalk to its bulbs, the entire fennel plant is edible. Fennel seeds, which can be used whole or ground, are also a staple in many kitchens.
Fennel is highly aromatic and has a licorice-like flavor.
Wait—So What Is Fennel Sausage?
Get the recipe: Cake Pan Italian Sausage Dinner
Fennel is an incredibly common ingredient in Italian cuisine. Fennel sausage, often called just “Italian sausage” in the U.S., is a spiced sausage made from meat and flavored with fennel seed.
Fennel vs. Anise
It’s a common misconception that fennel and anise are the same thing. While they do have similar flavors, they are entirely different plants that belong to the same family. Fennel seed comes from the bulb of an edible plant, while anise seed comes from a shrub that has no other culinary purpose.
Fun fact: Absinthe is made using both fennel and anise.
Fennel Health Benefits
Get the recipe: Peach-Fennel Salad With Pecorino
Fennel is packed with fiber, antioxidants, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and B6. Fennel tea can have a muscle-relaxing effect on digestion, and is often used to relieve constipation. Many people also use it to induce sleep, but be careful—for obvious reasons, it’s probably a good idea to consume the tea in moderation before bedtime.
How to Cook With Fennel
WATCH: How to Prepare Fennel
- Fennel stalks can take the place of celery in certain recipes (like soups) and can add texture and flavor to other would-be boring dishes.
- Fennel bulbs are extremely versatile and are often shredded and added to salads, braised with meat, pureed into soups and sauces, or simply roasted and served alone.
- You can use fennel leaves (or fronds) as you would any other fresh herb: in salads, sauces, marinades, soups, and more.
- Fennel seeds are used to flavor a wide variety of things, including teas, dry rubs, meats, and sauces. They’re often ground into powder and packaged with other spices in a spice blend.