It’s fairly likely that your kitchen is fennel-free right now. Most kitchens are. If you’re talking fresh fennel, many regular groceries are, too. So if you enjoy experimenting with new recipes, it’s useful to have a few possible substitutions in your back pocket if you happen to come across fennel as an ingredient.
What is Fennel?
Officially called Foeniculum vulgare, fennel is related to carrots and many other leafy herbs. It’s a large, shrubby plant with delicate leaves and lacy yellow flowers. It’s very hardy, and grows and spreads easily in many different climates. You may have even seen fennel growing wild as a weed somewhere and not realized it—it’s considered an undesirable invasive species in many places.
Cooking with fennel
Fennel is known widely for its licorice- or anise-like flavor. Almost all of the plant is actually edible, including the bulb, fresh leaves, and fresh or dried seeds (also sometimes known as “fruits”). These have very different flavors and uses. The fresh leaves are often used as a garnish, as a flavor for soups and stews, or placed on top of food (especially fish) being baked or grilled.
The bulb is treated more like a vegetable. Raw, it has a sweet flavor and a crunchy texture similar to celery and is sometimes called for sliced thinly in salads. Cooked, it softens much like an onion, and you’ll see recipes calling for it to be sautéed, baked or mashed. It adds a mild, bright flavor to dishes.
The dried seeds have a much stronger taste and a few different uses. You’ll find a touch of them in Italian sauces, adding a little complexity to the flavor. They’re also common in rubs for meat, marinades, and Mediterranean and South Asian dishes. They’re in sweet dishes, too, including most chai tea. Whole, they’re used in some baked goods and breads.
The bulb, with or without fronds attached, can be sometimes be found in a grocery’s produce section; the seeds will be shelved with other dried spices. If they’re absent, there are some substitutions you can make.
Substitutes for fennel bulb:
The cooked bulb of fennel has a unique taste that isn’t easy to mimic, and recipes that feature it tend to feature it heavily; it’s best to skip those until you get your hands on the real thing. If it’s not the focus of the dish—or if someone you’re feeding doesn’t like the flavor of licorice or anise even in small amounts—the texture is relatively similar to bok choy (AKA Chinese cabbage), which is sometimes used as a fennel substitute.
Raw, fennel is sometimes used for texture as much as taste, and celery can be a good substitution for the crunch, though not the flavor.
Substitutes For Fresh Fennel Leaves
There are a few good replacements for fresh fennel.
Another herb that’s frequently cooked alongside fish, dill is a good replacement for fennel if you’re using whole fronds; they’re actually used interchangeably in some cuisines. Dill and fennel are moderately similar in taste, although dill is warmer; it has a savory, grassy flavor, with less anise and sweetness. It works raw in salads or garnishes, or cooked with fish or stews.
If the recipe uses fresh fennel leaves, parsley is another option. It has a greener, more bitter flavor, but parsley makes a good choice in salads or garnishes.
3. Celery leaves
The rarely-eaten but absolutely edible tops of celery stalks can also be used in place of uncooked fennel greens; the celery-flavor is mild enough that it won’t overpower other ingredients.
4. Mexican avocado leaves
It’s not likely many people will be able to come into possession of avocado leaves unless they have a tree, but they have a remarkably similar flavor to fennel greens.
5. Hoja Santa, AKA Piper auritum
This herb is common in Central American cuisines, although not so much in the US. Like fennel, it has a licorice/anise flavor, but it is much pepperier; some people also describe it as tasting a bit like mint or eucalyptus.
Substitutes for dried fennel seeds:
Fennel, in all its forms, is usually described as “anise-like.” So it’s probably no surprise that the number one replacement for dried fennel is…
Similar enough to fennel that they’re often confused, and used interchangeably in some dishes, anise has the same sweet licorice flavor, although a bit stronger and spicier. If you’re making that replacement, to keep anise from overpowering a dish, use about 3/4 as much as you would fennel. It is by far the closest fennel substitute for sweet dishes, but there are a few more alternatives.
If a recipe calls for whole fennel seeds, like some rye or seeded breads, then caraway seeds are a better fennel substitute than anise. Their flavor is nutty and savory—they wouldn’t work as quite as well ground or in a sweet recipe—but their appearance and texture are close and they can be used as an easy replacement at a 1:1 ratio.
A common spice in South American and Indian dishes, cumin is more powerful and spicy than fennel. It will work as a replacement in savory dishes and will result in a hotter, punchier flavor (sometimes a desirable thing!) This is a great substitute for fennel.
4. Five Spice
If you have a bottle of Chinese Five Spice powder, you probably do have fennel; there are regional variants, but fennel is almost always one of the five spices. The mix usually includes a pepper of some sort, so it may not be the best choice for sweet dishes unless you want a little kick of spice (and maybe you do).
If you’re ready to play around a little, anise- or licorice-flavored liquor can be used in place of fennel for some recipes—cautiously, the way you might use vanilla extract. Pernod, sambuca, anisette, and ouzo all have strong anise flavors. Because you’re replacing a dry ingredient with a liquid, it can be tricky to gauge how much to use, but they can be fantastic.
There’s always going to be a little guesswork and experimentation when you make replacements in your recipes, but it can be fun to know you can get flexible and creative.