Fennel Substitutes: When Fennel Simply Isn’t An Option

Whenever you’re cooking for a larger group of people, it’s smart to ask them about any possible food allergies.

I know it’s a bit strange to ask someone that, but if you set the weirdness aside, it’s the right (and responsible) thing to do. 

Why am I telling you this?

Because, while fennel allergies are rare, sadly, they do exist, and when you’re in a position to cook for someone with such an unusual allergy, you need to know what your alternatives are. 

Here are some of my best fennel substitutes for those occasions when using fennel is out of the question. 

First Things First: What Is Fennel?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know a bit more about what it is you include in your dishes, so here’s what you should know about fennel

  • It’s a perennial flowering plant, easily recognized by its yellow flowers and feathery leaves - even if you’ve never used it before, you’ve probably seen it around. 
  • Since you’re here, reading this, it’s safe to assume you know that fennel has various culinary uses. The bulbs are not the only thing that’s edible, though; the leaves and seeds have also found a way to be included in many different recipes. 
  • While you can prepare the roots the same way you would any other vegetable (by cooking it), seeds are used as a spice – and a popular one, if I might add. That’s especially the case in French and Italian cuisine, but the Indian and North African cuisines aren’t that far behind, either. 

Taste: You Either Like It Or You Don’t

Some people love licorice more than anything, while others just can’t stand it. 

I know what you’re thinking:

What does this have to do with fennel, though?

Well, the thing about fennel is that it tastes almost exactly like it.

So, whether or not you’re a fan of that unique taste will determine if you’ll include fennel in your recipes – or opt for one of the alternatives, instead.

Fennel Substitutes That Will Surprise You

Before I actually start talking about fennel substitutes, I’d like you to reread the recipe.

What does the recipe call for exactly?

Since both the bulb and the seeds find their uses in cooking – the bulb is treated as a vegetable, while the seeds act as a herb – you need to know what exactly needs to be replaced.

And now, let’s see some of my best suggestions when it comes to fennel substitutes; don’t worry, these were all tried out by yours truly, so I made sure they work.

1. Your Best Bet: Anise

As I previously mentioned, fennel seeds have many different culinary uses, but since they are a part of so many recipes, it’s necessary to have a suitable replacement for them.

That’s where anise seeds come to play.

When asked about fennel’s flavor, a lot of people tend to say it tastes like anise, which tells a lot about the many shared qualities of these two plants. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s frequently used as the number one go-to substitute for fennel seeds.

They’ll add the same licorice aroma to your dish – I think a lot of people could easily be fooled into thinking you’ve used fennel seeds and not the alternative.

2. The Distinct Taste: Dill

The first time I learned about the many benefits of including dill in my diet, I was still a teenager – my mother used to make dill tea for me.

Later on in life, I’ve decided to grow dill in my garden so that I could always have it nearby whenever I need it. 

That’s precisely why it was one of the first fennel substitutes I ever tried.

The aroma is, in fact, similar to that of anise seeds; the main difference is the strength – dill has a more subtle, warm flavor to it, but to this day, it’s one of my favorite fennel alternatives.

3. Extra Crunchy: Celery

Are you looking for that extra crunch?

Celery is the way to go – not only on its own but as a fennel substitute, too.

What makes it a great alternative to fennel bulbs is their similarity in texture, as well as structure, and the fact that it’s also the most popular substitute on the market doesn’t hurt, either.

Of course, their flavors are worlds apart.

But if you’re not a big fan of fennel anyway, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

4. Accessible Substitute: Parsley

Another great solution for when fennel isn’t an option is parsley, with its cool flavor.

The best thing about it is that you probably have it in your kitchen as we speak – besides celery, it’s one of the most accessible fennel substitutes because it’s frequently used in everyday cooking.

So, if there’s one thing on this list you probably have, it’s parsley. 

Keep in mind that parsley acts as a substitute only for fennel leaves, not the bulbs – that’s celery’s job.

5. Liqueur Is An Option, Too: Pernod

What has an even stronger licorice and anise flavor than fennel?

Pernod.

You could almost say this French brand of liquor tastes more like fennel than fennel does. So, it’s a well-known fact that Pernod and fennel go well together – due to their somewhat similar flavors.

But if you ask me, that also means that you can use Pernod as a fennel substitute – whenever you need that characteristic licorice flavor, with the addition of some complex herbal notes.

6. The Same Texture: Bok Choy

If you’re looking for the same texture that fennel would add to your dish, then bok choy is probably your best bet. It does feature a bit stronger bite than fennel, though. 

Bok choy should be a part of your diet even when you’re not using it as a substitute for fennel – a plant that has one of the highest rankings on ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) surely deserves a spot on your plate.

7. Leafy Alternative: Mexican Avocado Leaves

If the recipe you’re following calls for fennel leaves, but you’re all out, one way to still get that lingering anise flavor is to use the Mexican variety of avocado leaves.

While the taste is not nearly as strong as it is in fennel, it’s still a pretty decent substitute for it.

To ensure you’re not putting your and your family’s health at risk, you should always opt for those that weren’t sprayed with pesticides.

Oh, and here’s a tip regarding preparation: 

  • Toast them before you use them - a hot grill and a minute per side are all it takes.

8. Peppery Taste: Hoja Santa

If you want something more peppery, Hoja santa leaves are what you’re looking for – while they do have the same anise flavor as fennel leaves do (you know, the licorice one), but with a black pepper note to it. 

I know what you’re wondering:

What’s the right amount of Hoja santa I should use?

A good rule of thumb would be two leaves of Hoja santa for every cup of fennel leaves the recipe requires. 

Since Hoja santa is a big part of Mexican cuisine (the same goes for avocado leaves), keep it in mind when you’re up for making tamales.

9. Substituting Fennel For Fennel: Seeds

If the reason behind your need to find a fennel substitute is not an allergy or a strong dislike of the taste, but the fact that you just can’t get your hands on some fennel bulbs, don’t worry:

There’s a way to replace fennel with fennel.

When a recipe calls for fennel bulbs, what it needs is that sweet, mild licorice flavor. As I mentioned earlier, when it comes to fennel, all its parts can be used for culinary purposes – the bulb, leaves, and seeds.

So, if you lack fresh fennel, add fennel seeds instead – one teaspoon of seeds per every pound of fennel the recipe calls for.

Conclusion

So, there you have it - some of my best fennel substitutes you could reach for in case you can’t use the ingredient initially found in the recipe.

Whatever the reason for replacing fennel with one of the alternatives may be, rest assured that you’ll be able to complete your dish without any significant changes, both flavor, and texture-wise.

And most importantly, remember to have fun experimenting with many different options I gave you. 😉

Barbara Whitney
 

For the last 20 years, I’ve been cooking, preparing, researching, and gathering recipes, tools, and knowledge about food and the way we prepare it. Raising two lively boys and spoiling one great husband later, it’s safe to say that I’ve optimized my kitchen to deliver the best possible meal, no matter the occasion.

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