Fennel is such a unique herb and is also eaten as a vegetable. If you were to combine an onion bulb with the color and texture of celery, then give it some feathery dilly fronds, you’d end up with something looking very similar to a fennel bulb. The amazing thing about this vegetable is that you can eat pretty much every part of it, both raw or cooked.
From the seeds to the leaves and bulbous roots, they all offer loads of flavor and texture in sweet and savory dishes. If you can’t get fennel and need a substitute, there are a few options to choose from depending on which part of the fennel your recipe requires and how it needs to be cooked. If you’re not sure where to begin, don’t worry, this is your step-by-step guide to substituting fennel. Let’s dig in.
How Is Fennel Used?
With its crisp interior onion-like layers but pronounced black licorice flavor, you might be surprised to know that fennel is part of the carrot family. The look of the light wispy leaves can easily be mistaken for dill. However, they have an anise flavor which brings a great pop when finely chopped as a garnish for salads, pasta, soup, or used in a vegetable broth.
The bulb is crunchy and moisture-rich. It is delicious sliced on a mandolin and tossed into salads or simply dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice. They can also be cooked into tarts and quiches, allowing for a lovely caramelized quality.
Alternatively, the bulb can be cut into thicker wedges and roasted. Roasting will yield a softer texture and sweeter flavor. It can be mixed in with other roast veggies, used in vegetable stir-fries, eaten on its own, or even with pasta. There are so many possibilities.
Fennel seeds are used in a variety of global dishes and often mixed with other spices in soups, sauces, lamb curries, potato dishes, pickles, bread, and used to make tea.
When choosing a substitute for fennel, consider the following aspects, and then have a look at the substitution list below for the best match:
- What part of the fennel does the recipe call for?
- Is the fennel used raw or cooked?
- Is the anise flavor important to the dish?
- Is the crunchy texture important to the dish?
So you might be wondering “I don’t like fennel, what can I use instead?”. Here are our substitution recommendations:
Best Raw Fennel Alternative
If you’re wanting to make a stand-alone fennel salad, you probably won’t find a suitable single ingredient to match the mild licorice flavor and crunch, so you’ll have to compromise on one of the two aspects. However, in any other salad where it is incorporated with other ingredients, celery should be your go-to alternative.
Fresh celery has a very similar color and texture to fennel bulbs, but it doesn’t have the same shape or taste. Its long fibrous stalks are saltier than fennel, although it doesn’t have an overly salty taste. For the same juicy crunch in salads, slice celery stalks width-wise in thin slices.
Celery is also used chopped with other ingredients in bases for soups, stews, broths, stocks, and sauces.
Substitute quantity: Use 2 to 3 medium-size celery stalks to replace 1 medium fennel bulb (1 to 1.5 cups sliced)
Best for: Mixed salads and a base for stews and soup.
Best Cooked Fennel Replacement
Yellow onions, white onions, or shallots can be used as a cooked replacement for fennel. Raw onions have a very overpowering flavor, so they won’t be suitable as an uncooked alternative. However, when onions are cooked, they soften and develop a slightly sweet flavor profile.
They won’t provide the same flavor complexity, but the color, texture, and slight sweetness will be similar and, most importantly, delicious. Avoid using red onions as a replacement,
Substitute quantity: Use 1 medium size onion to replace 1 medium fennel bulb (1 to 1.5 cups sliced or chopped). Alternatively, cut shallots into halves or quarters for a chunky roast vegetable replacement.
Best for: Savory dishes requiring chopped or sliced cooked fennel. These include soup, roast vegetables, stew, savory tarts, quiche, or chicken, fish, meat, and potato dishes.
Tip: If you have fennel seeds, add half a teaspoon to the dish to bring a hint of anise flavor.
Related: Substitute for onion
Leeks come from the same plant family as onions and garlic. They have thick round stems which are prepared chopped or sliced. Leeks have a mild onion flavor compared to regular onions.
They also soften and become slightly sweeter when cooked, which allows them to be used in the same way as onions as a replacement. Again, if you have fennel seeds and want a closer flavor profile, add half a teaspoon with the leeks when cooking.
Substitute quantity: Use 1 large leek to replace 1 bulb (1 to 1.5 cups sliced or chopped)
Best for: Cooked dishes. Use leeks chopped or sliced in soups, stew, quiche, roast vegetables, or with chicken, fish, meat, and potato dishes.
Best Fennel Seed Substitutes
Although not identical, caraway seeds have similar flavor undertones since they are also in the carrot family. These seeds are often used in Indian or Middle-Eastern spice mixes.
Substitute quantity: Replace in equal measures. Use whole seeds to replace dried fennel seeds and ground seeds to replace the ground spice powder.
Best for: Meat rubs, rye bread, potato dishes, pickles, stew, curry, dips, and salads.
Related: Caraway seed alternative
Although they have the same licorice profile, anise seeds are small and pretty potent. If that flavor is what you love about fennel, you’ll love these seeds. However, if you’re trying to avoid the licorice taste, another replacement will be a better choice for you.
Substitute quantity: Only use half the amount of anise seeds than what is required in the recipe since they are stronger in flavor.
Best for: Meat rubs, bread and pastry, pickles, stew, curry, and salads.
Cumin and Celery Seeds
A blend of cumin seeds and celery seeds makes a great fennel substitute, specifically in Indian dishes. The two flavors combine to bring a similar aroma and depth, although they may slightly lack the characteristic licorice flavor.
Substitute quantity: Combine the seeds and use the mix as a 1:1 replacement.
Best for: Curry
See more: Substitute for cumin
Fennel Fronds Substitute
Since it looks very similar and has a similar aroma, dill is a perfect replacement for the wispy green fronds. The herb does wilt quickly but can be chopped finely and mixed into dishes or used as a garnish.
Substitute quantity: Replace in equal quantities
Best for: Garnishes, salads, soup, egg dishes, dressings, and dips.
Yes, bok choy offers a similar texture, especially the lighter parts of the stem that have a bit more crunch. They can be added to soup, stir-fried, grilled, and stewed.
When prepared properly, artichokes are a great addition to pasta. They won’t offer the same pop of flavor but have a similar color and texture. They can be braised or grilled for a similar appearance and will also be a good choice in a salad.
Although the two are in the same plant family with similar feathery leaves, they are not the same and taste a little different.
Choosing an alternative ingredient to match this unique flavor profile will depend on whether you’re cooking savory recipes or developing sweet sensations. With multiple options to choose from, consider whether the texture, appearance, or flavor is the most important aspect to match in your dish.
Cooking is all about mixing, matching, and experimenting. By trying a new alternative, you might find a new addition to an old recipe that you’ll love.
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