What Are Fennel Seeds?
Fennel seeds come from a specific variety of fennel known as herb fennel or common fennel. Interestingly, what we know as fennel seeds are actually the fruit of the fennel. Each tiny fennel “seed” contains the smaller, actual seed within. The fennel plant is in the carrot family and is related to cumin and caraway, which explains the strikingly similar appearance of their “seeds”.
What Do Fennel Seeds Taste Like?
Fennel seeds have a warm and slightly sweet licorice-like flavor. Their taste has often been described as a milder version of anise seeds, a spice they coincidentally closely resemble.
Types of Fennel Seeds
There are actually two kinds of fennel seeds used in cooking – sweet fennel and wild fennel. Sweet fennel seed, which is the variety we’re covering here, is the most commonly used internationally and is the kind you’re most likely to find.
Wild fennel seeds are primarily used in Central and Eastern Europe and have a grassy, earthy flavor similar to celery seeds. Because of their markedly dissimilar flavor profiles, sweet fennel seeds and wild fennel seeds can’t be used interchangeably.
How to Use Fennel Seeds in Your Cooking
Though fennel is native to the Mediterranean, fennel seeds are most commonly used in Middle Eastern, Indian, European, and Chinese cuisine.
Fennel seeds work especially well when paired with other warming spices and are a great way to subtly layer flavor. For our spice roasted cauliflower, we used fennel seeds along with curry powder and red pepper flakes to transform delicate cauliflower into a kicky veggie dish that can easily pass as a main. Fennel seeds are also an important component of Chinese five-spice powder and Indian chai tea. Their anise-like flavor brings a lot of depth to soy-marinated pork chops and chai spiced cake.
The aromatic spice is also flavorful enough to stand on its own. Try making your own fennel salt for sprinkling over fish, poultry, and vegetable dishes.