Fennel seed is the fruit or what we commonly known as fennel, a plant from the carrot family.
Fennel has an oval shape, and it is a green-brown color once dried. It originates from the Mediterranean region, but now, fennel seeds are a part of all sorts of diets around the world.
Fennel seeds are more than just a great spice – they provide a wide range of health benefits for you. Fennel seeds are rich in antioxidants such as quercetin and kaempferol. They are also an excellent source of minerals like copper, iron, potassium, calcium, and zinc among some.
You can also use fennel seeds when making savory and sweet dishes. For example, you can add them when cooking homemade sausage for extra sweetness or in potato-based curry.
Another way to use these seeds is to use them in powder which is easy to make at home, and mix with other spices or to boil into a tea for digestion later.
These fantastic seeds are available year-round in the markets. Remember to store these dry seeds in an air-sealed container and put them in dark, non-humid and cool place.
Fennel seed is an excellent addition to your diet, and when you don’t have them or something gets in your way – you can substitute it with other tasty ingredients which are equally good.
I try to keep a healthy supply of them in my cupboard, but I can’t always get it restocked at my local store. This is why I took time to determine which substitute seasoning would provide the dish with the most consistent flavor.
Substitutes for fennel seeds
Here is a list of delicious substitutes which you can confidently reach for the next time a recipe calls for fennel seeds:
1. Anise seeds
The closest substitute is anise seed, with its similar licorice flavor.
Anise seeds have widely been used as a cold remedy for years and to cure stomachache. You can also use these seeds to create oil which you can apply to areas in your body that hurt.
Anise seeds are full of critical nutritional factors such as copper, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc and more, as well as antioxidants and vitamins.
However, there are some fundamental differences between fennel and anise you should be aware of:
- Fennel is a vegetable while anise is considered as a spice
- Fennel seeds are a little thicker and are well suited to the protein and meats
- The anise has a smaller seed which works better with lighter dishes where the fennel seed may stand out too much
- Anise is commonly used in pastries and desserts
Since the fennel seeds are little thicker, I have also used a mortar and pestle to grind down the fennel seeds more. This allows more of the flavor to release into the dish.
2. Caraway seeds
Caraway seeds are an excellent substitute for fennel seeds if your local grocer is running low on fennel. In fact, these seeds are the fruit of the plant, and they tend to be about a quarter-inch in size.
Caraway seed has a similar flavor, but you need to know how to use it adequately to bring the flavor out and make it an appropriate substitute. Its licorice flavor is stronger than fennel, and it has a bitter aroma.
I also used the seeds in cakes, biscuits and soda bread when I wanted to add an earthy flavor but was out of fennel. It is a remarkable addition to all types of roast or briskets, as it will add flavor to the meat without overpowering it.
3. Dill seeds
Dill is widely used throughout the U.S., and many people love their chips and dill pickles. It adds a tangy flavor to your dishes, and it is very easy to store the dried spice.
Nowadays, many grocery stores are offering dill seasoning, and you will find that this adds more depth and flavor to your dishes. Just wrap it in a damp paper towel and store it in your fridge to preserve freshness.
Keep in mind that dill only lasts for two days, so you should pick it up when it is time to make your dish.
Dill is an excellent substitute for fennel when it comes to fish dishes. Just sprinkle some chopped dill over your trout or salmon for complementary flavors.
Both dill and fennel have hollow stems and are known as umbellifers; there are also some differences between the two you should keep in mind:
- Fennel is more widely used in grilled and sautéed dishes.
- Dill is ideal for making salad dressings and sauces or for pickling
Even if you have never cooked with fennel, you will recognize cumin as a common ingredient in chili seasoning, which is widely used in Indian cuisine and Latin dishes.
Most chefs keep some cumin on hand and you will be surprised to learn that it represents a good source of iron and manganese. You can use it in curry powder, chili powder, or in taco and fajita seasonings.
The fine powder blends easily with other seasonings which create new tastes that will stand out. Cumin is predominantly available in a powder form, but you can also use the seeds.
While fennel is commonly used to season items as they cook, cumin is typically used as a garnish in salads, tortillas and other dishes. You can also leave the whole seeds if you are going to add texture to a dish which is already cooked.
Fundamental differences between the two are:
- Fennel has sweet, light flavor while cumin has a more powerful taste which lends itself to spicy Mexican cuisine.
- You will also notice a different scent to the plants.
5. Licorice root
Because fennel has a slight licorice flavor to it, it is not surprising that you can substitute some licorice root for it. But licorice root can be a little harder to work with than the fennel seeds.
Rather than buying the raw root, look for a powder which you can sprinkle onto dishes to add some flavor.
If you are using powdered licorice root, then 3/4 teaspoon should be used in place of 1 teaspoon of fennel seed. If you can only find licorice in root form, you have to soak it in hot water first. After that, add this liquid to your dish to bring out the rich licorice flavor.
Licorice has a sweet flavor to it, and it is commonly used to mask unpleasant flavor in different medications. Licorice tends to leave a coating behind on surfaces, and because of that, it is commonly used for coughs, sore throats, and upset stomachs.
It is not commonly used in modern medicine just because it can have the unwelcome side effect of raising blood pressure, so avoid using licorice root if anyone at your dining table has blood pressure or heart problems.
6. Mahlab seed
The Mahlab seed is known for its sour and sweet taste with the subtle cherry flavor. It is a staple in Mediterranean cuisine and can be used from cookies to bread because of its pleasant almond aftertaste.
It is typically used in place of fennel when supplies run low. However, it may not be the best choice to season meat.
In case you purchase it whole, you will need to grind it down with a mortar and pestle. This seed has oils that dissipate quickly, so it is best to do this right before adding it to your dish.
It may seem like a pain in the ass to grind down Mahlab seeds, but I find that it is quite easy when you have the right tools on hand.
It is one of those strange flavors that your friends will enjoy, but they probably won’t be able to define it. You can also pull out the Mahlab seeds when you are making sweet dairy dishes, such as pudding.
Many recipes call for fennel seed, and we don’t always have it on hand. That is why sometimes we have to shake things up by trying something different.
Don’t hesitate to explore new cooking methods, and remember – the best dishes are crafted when we run out of one thing and decide to try something new. 🙂