Real Food Encyclopedia | Fennel

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a versatile vegetable with a licorice-like taste. Fennel originated in the Mediterranean, where wild (a.k.a., “bitter”) fennel still grows. Although exact dates are lost, it was likely first cultivated in either Greece or Italy and was used for both medicinal and culinary purposes. The ancient Greeks and Romans made extensive use of fennel, eating the seeds, blossoms and the fronds.

Florence fennel (also called finocchio or “sweet anise”), the variety eaten as a vegetable, wasn’t developed until the 17th century in Italy. Although many recipes refer to fennel “root,” it is actually the stalk, swollen into a bulb-like shape at the plant’s base, which is consumed.

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Did you know?

  • Pliny The Elder, the ancient Roman author famous for his sweeping encyclopedia, “Natural History,” mentions fennel numerous times as a treatment for stomachache, to care for the “stings of serpents,” for uterus health and as a treatment for a bunch of other ancient Roman maladies.
  • In some places in the U.S., fennel has become an invasive species.
  • Thomas Jefferson once proclaimed Florence fennel his favorite vegetable.

What to look for when buying fennel

Fennel bulbs should be whitish-green, firm and heavy for their size, with no brown or mushy spots. If the feathery green fronds are still attached, they should be sprightly with no signs of wilting or dryness.

Sustainability of fennel


Fennel’s environmental impact seems quite low, mostly because its relative unpopularity in the U.S. means that it is not grown in an ecologically intensive manner. It does not appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, but the crop is susceptible to several different pests and diseases for which a number of different pesticides have been approved in the U.S. Check with your local farmer to learn more about their growing practices.


Fresh Florence fennel is a cool-weather crop that usually makes its appearance at the market in the fall. In warm climates, its season lasts through winter and into spring.


India leads the world in fennel cultivation, though those varieties are mainly grown for fennel seeds, which are used as a spice. Most U.S.-grown Florence fennel comes from California and Arizona, although it is considered a minor crop here in the U.S.

Eating fennel


Fresh bulbs should be stored in a less-cold part of your refrigerator: exposure to very cold temperatures can cause rupture of the cell membranes — not at all delicious. The bulbs will keep in the fridge for up to a week wrapped in a paper towel; any longer and you run the risk of tough fennel. The fronds can be wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in the refrigerator, but they tend to wilt or dry out within a day or two. The seeds should be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.


To prepare Florence fennel, first trim off stalks and compost or save for another use. Trim root end slightly and peel off the outer layer of the bulb. Cut the bulb in half (long ways) through the middle of the root. You then can then slice the halves either horizontally or vertically, or cut into quarters through the root. The core of very big fennel bulbs may be a bit tough; smaller ones tend to be more tender.

Cooking With Less Waste

Fennel is a remarkably versatile plant to cook with, because so much of the plant can be eaten. Natural pairings with the vegetable are fish and shellfish, citrus, strong cheeses like Parmesan and Gorgonzola, tomatoes, pork and chicken.

Fennel pollen is a delicacy in Italy and also increasingly in the U.S. — try sprinkling seared or grilled fish fillets with it. The bulbs can be eaten raw, roasted, braisedcaramelized, grilled and even candied. Cooking tends to diminish the anise flavor of the vegetable.

The stems can be added to stock or soups to add their distinctive flavor (use sparingly!), or try tossing a few stems on the coals when grilling fish. The fronds are beautiful as a garnish, delicious stuffed inside the cavity of a whole fish and are a classic component of the French fish stew, bouillabaisse.

Fennel seed is just as flexible. It is one of the spices in Chinese five-spice powder and is an important spice in India, where it is frequently used in savory dishes and chewed after a meal as a breath freshener. Pork and fennel seeds are delicious bedfellows — the seeds are often a key seasoning in Italian pork sausages and taste great with pork loin and other pork cuts. The seeds are also used in many baked goods, especially those of Southern Italian origin.


Fennel is a great candidate for preserving — check out these fennel stem pickles and these Meyer lemon and fennel pickles. You can also easily dry your own seeds if you have access to a fennel plant. The fronds can be frozen in ice-cube trays to use well past its season.


Fennel bulbs are a good source of Vitamin C, manganese and potassium and (like a whole lot of veggies) are really high in fiber. The seeds are high in manganese, iron, calcium and magnesium. In herbal medicine, fennel is used a remedy for menstrual pain, coughs, to strengthen eyesight and for stomach pain. Fennel seed is also used in folk medicine as a carminative (i.e., for flatulence prevention).


Top photo by wjarek/Adobe Stock.