Fennel is a strange vegetable with a very powerful taste. When you first bite into fennel, you might be surprised by just how strongly the taste resembles licorice.
Fennel is in the same family of herbs as caraway, anise, cumin, and dill. This herb has a long history; at times, fennel has been used for several purposes, including medicinal usage, cooking, and magical purposes. We know that the Ancient Egyptians used fennel, and in Ancient China, this pungent herb was used to heal a snake bite. People hung fennel in doorways to scare away evil spirits in the Middle Ages. Also, fennel is associated with Ancient Greek because one of the first marathon runners ran to Sparta with a sprig of fennel. It’s amazing how much history some herbs have.
Interestingly, fennel doesn’t have any association with licorice or the aniseed which gives it its flavor.
This licorice-like taste can be very dividing. Licorice is definitely a flavor that people will either completely love or completely avoid.
But, even those who enjoy a licorice rope might not enjoy the same flavor in a savory vegetable dish.
So, what can you do to replace fennel? Luckily, there are plenty of delicious ways to swap out fennel.
As fennel is edible from seed to stem, we will provide you with the best substitutes for every single piece of the fennel plant.
Fennel Bulb Substitutes
Let’s start with the most recognizable part of the fennel. Fennel bulbs are the large, bulbous section at the base of the plant.
This is the part that has the strongest flavor and is most commonly used in vegetable dishes. Here are the best substitutes for the fennel bulb:
Bok choy is a hugely underrated ingredient. It is sometimes used in salads but deserves to be much more popular. Bok choy can be eaten raw or it can be fried or roasted.
Bok choy might look like just another type of flavorless lettuce. But it has a much stronger flavor than you would expect. It has a bold peppery taste that will be powerful in any dish.
It doesn’t have a licorice-like flavor like fennel. But it will have a similar effect on dishes and definitely pack a punch. It has a similar taste to mustard seeds.
Bok choy doesn’t have quite the same texture as the fennel bulb. Bok choy is much softer than fennel. And becomes even softer when cooked.
Whereas fennel will still retain some of its crunchiness. But this won’t have much of a difference. Depending on how long you cook the bok choy, it can still retain some crunch. But the leaves will become soft and wilt like spinach.
Leek is another great alternative to fennel. The taste of leek is very different from that of the fennel plant. But it has a relatively similar texture.
Leeks become quite soft when cooked. But it will still retain its shape and can be roasted, fried, or boiled.
The taste of leek is much milder than bok choy or fennel. It is closer to onion in its flavor. Like fennel, you can eat leek raw but it won’t be particularly nice.
Bok choy is the best substitute for fennel if you want to use something raw in a salad.
Although the leaves of a leek are edible, they don’t taste particularly nice. They are very tough and bitter.
Unlike fennel, which can be consumed entirely, the best part of a leek is the white and pale green stalk. This part of a leek cooks very quickly and can take on a lot of flavor and seasoning.
This might be a bit of a surprising one. Celery gets a bad rap for being a “health food”. Although it is lacking in calories, it definitely isn’t lacking in taste.
Celery is most often eaten raw. But it can also be cooked or fried.
Celery, as you likely know, is very crunchy when raw. Although it is usually used as a vehicle for dips, celery has its own powerful taste.
It has an almost peppery flavor that does well to mimic the effect of fennel, without the overpowering licorice taste.
Although you might not see very many recipes for it, celery can be easily cooked. It is best when roasted and seasoned with garlic and herbs.
When roasted, celery will become slightly soft but still retain its crunchy texture. This is very similar to the texture of a roasted fennel bulb.
Fennel Leaves Substitutes
Fennel isn’t always sold with its leaves. This is because most people prefer to only eat the bulb.
But the leaves are also edible and can be used in the same way as many fresh herbs. Here are the best herbs that can be used to substitute fennel leaves:
In terms of texture, dill is by far the closest to the leaves of a fennel plant. For flavor, dill is quite different.
The leaves of a fennel plant have the aniseed taste that runs through the entirety of the plant. But they have a fresher taste. This is more similar to lettuce.
Both dill and fennel leaves are fragrant. But fennel has a more intense and more bitter taste. Whereas dill is lighter and usually used in light dishes, usually alongside fish and white wine sauces.
Cilantro is another ingredient that people either love or hate. Some people enjoy the bitterness. Whereas the other most common opinion is that it tastes like soap.
But, if you enjoy the taste of cilantro then it can provide a similar bitterness and freshness to that of fennel leaves.
If you want something to replace the fresh grassiness of the fennel leaves, then dill is the best option.
But, if you want something strong and bitter (but just not something that tastes like licorice) then cilantro is definitely a good choice.
Fennel Seed Substitutes
Fennel seeds also have a licorice/aniseed flavor. Star anise, as you might have guessed from the name, also has a similar taste to aniseed. But, don’t worry, it isn’t nearly as strong a flavor as fennel.
Star anise is commonly used in recipes that also call for cinnamon and nutmeg. Aniseed would be much too jarring a flavor to include alongside these spices.
Star anise only has a slight aniseed flavor, it also has a mild spicy flavor that is similar to cinnamon.
Star anise can be used in a wide variety of dishes. From bakes to mulled wine to curries. It’s a good idea to always have a pot of star anise on your spice rack.
You might be more familiar with cumin as a spice. But cumin seeds are also edible. Cumin seeds have a slightly different flavor than fennel seeds.
Whereas fennel seeds have a sharp flavor, cumin seeds are more aromatic.
They do still have a very strong flavor, however, so make sure to only add in the same number of seeds as the recipe asks for.
Fennel is a very unique food in both shape and flavor. But there are a lot of different foods that can be used to replace it.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can be used as a fennel seed substitute in lasagna?
In lasagna, you can substitute fennel seeds with caraway seeds or cumin seeds for a similar anise-like flavor. Alternatively, you can use a pinch of anise seeds or a small amount of anise extract. Adjust the amount according to your taste preference.
Is it possible to replace fennel with leeks?
Yes, you can replace fennel with leeks in recipes that call for fennel bulbs. Leeks have a mild onion flavor, which can work well as a substitute. However, keep in mind that the taste will be different, so consider other alternatives such as celery or bok choy if you still want that anise-like flavor.
How can fennel bulb and fennel seed be interchanged?
Fennel bulb and fennel seed have different flavors and textures, so they may not be interchangeable in every recipe. For instance, the bulb has a mild anise flavor and a crunchy texture, while the seeds have a stronger flavor. If a recipe calls for fennel bulb, consider substituting with celery or bok choy. If it calls for fennel seeds, try caraway, cumin, or anise seeds.
What can be used in place of fennel seed in sausage?
For sausages, you can use alternatives like caraway seeds, anise seeds, or cumin seeds to replace fennel seeds. These substitutes will provide a similar aromatic flavor. Make sure to adjust the amount according to your taste before adding them in the sausage mix.
Can anise be used as a substitute for fennel bulb?
Anise can be used as a flavor substitute for fennel bulb, but not for texture. You may add a pinch of anise seeds or a small amount of anise extract to achieve the anise-like flavor. For texture, consider using alternatives like celery, leeks, or bok choy.
What alternative can be used for fennel seeds in curry?
In curry dishes, you can use alternatives such as caraway seeds, cumin seeds, or anise seeds to replace fennel seeds. These substitutes can give you a similar aromatic and flavorful profile. Adjust the quantity to suit your taste and balance the flavors in your curry.
Perfect Fennel Substitutes
- Bok Choy
- Star Anise
- Cumin Seeds
- Try our kitchen tested fennel substitutes.
Use in or with your favorite recipe.