Fennel is a hardy flowering plant in the carrot family. It’s often classified as both an herb and a vegetable, and it can be used in a variety of ways both in and outside the kitchen. Highly aromatic, fennel has a lovely licorice flavor similar to anise. When eaten raw, fennel adds a fresh brightness to a dish. When cooked, fennel becomes soft and silky, and just a little bit sweet. It’s the perfect choice for sweet or savory dishes. Beyond its versatility in the kitchen, fennel is also incredibly healthy for us.
Fennel is chock full of nutrients like potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, folate, pantothenic acid, beta-carotene, lutein, and vitamins A, B6, E and K. In addition, it provides a high level of dietary nitrates and is a natural source of estrogen.
Fennel also contains phytonutrients which have proven to have anticancer and anti-inflammatory benefits. A phytonutrient called anethole found in fennel has been linked to slowing the growth of cancer cells in breast cancer. Plus, the antioxidants in fennel have been shown to help reverse damage to liver cells.
How to Buy, Clean and Store Fennel
While fennel can be found year-round at grocery stores, its peak season is from late fall to early spring. Fennel is sold both with the stalks and fronds still attached, and also without. If have the option to choose, always select the bulbs with the fronds and stalks still attached. They, along with the white bulb, are completely edible so you’ll end up with more fennel for your money.
Choose small to medium-sized bright white bulbs that feel heavy and firm. Look for bulbs with tightly packed layers and avoid bulbs with loose outer layers or that have moist spots or look bruised and split. If the stalks are still attached, make sure that they feel solid and firm; not limp or rubbery. Finally, make sure the fronds are bright green and feathery while avoiding fronds that appear wilted or slimy.
Similar to carrots and parsnips, you’ll want to separate the stalks from the bulb and store them separately in plastic bags placed in the crisper of your fridge. Fennel will keep for about a week, however it does start to lose flavor fast so try to use the fennel within a few days.
Related Reading: Step-by-Step Guide on How to Cut Fennel
Fennel seeds aren’t actually seeds at all, they are the fruit of fennel plant. The seeds have an oval shape, and once dried takes on a lovely brownish color that will slowly fade to grey as they age. Like the bulbs, they have a licorice flavor that can sometimes be confused with anise. Like fresh fennel bulbs, these little seeds have many more benefits beyond their flavor capabilities.
Chewing fennel seeds after a meal releases oils that freshen the mouth and calm the senses. Fennel has also been known to help alleviate digestive problems such as gas, bloating and cramping. For centuries, fennel has been used in digestive bitters like this Fennel Seed Tummy Tincture. But that’s not all.
The naturally occurring nitrite compounds in fennel seeds promote healthy circulation and can be used to improve athletic performance. Chewing fennel seeds has also been shown to reduce menstrual cramps and PMS symptoms, thus reducing the need for over the counter medications like ibuprofen.
While small amounts of fennel are considered safe, those who are pregnant, nursing or taking any medications should consult a doctor before using fennel seeds as an herbal supplement.
If the taste and health benefits weren’t enough, fennel seeds are good for our hair and skin too. They’re full of anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antiseptic properties, which means they’re great at reducing facial puffiness and clearing up blemishes. When used as a hair mask, fennel can help protect hair from breakage as well as being used as a treatment for a dry, itchy scalp. The bonus? Fennel seeds are budget-friendly.
Here are a few DIY Beauty recipes to try:
Cooking with Fennel
Fennel can be eaten raw or cooked and both methods have their benefits. Raw fennel is crunchy with a faint licorice or anise flavor. Cooked fennel becomes soft and silky. I found a few recipes that utilize a variety of cooking methods to help you find your favorite way to prepare fennel.
This French Lentil, Fennel + Cabbage Salad from Ashley at Blissful Basil is crunchy, peppery, and just a little sweet. It’s also oil and nut-free and packed with fiber and protein to help keep you full.