Fennel is a wonderful and unique herb that has many healthy and delightful applications. However, it’s not extremely well-known, so you might have some trouble finding it at a grocery store or farmer’s market the next time you decide to incorporate it into a recipe.
If you’re unable to procure fennel seed to use in that recipe you’ve been dying to try out, consider these top 5 substitutes for fennel seed that can add a similarly rich, sweet earthy note to your pork rub, fish crust, or after-dinner tea.
What is Fennel Seed?
Foeniculum vulgare, the scientific classification for the common fennel seed, is an herb with a wide range of uses in cooking as well as in healthcare. This seed comes from a flowering plant from the carrot family, although you’re not likely to confuse its white flesh and feathery leaves for a common carrot!
The seeds themselves are harvested from the fennel flower and then dried, resulting in a small, green-to-tan colored seed.
Although the origins of fennel is in the Mediterranean, the fennel plant and its seeds are common worldwide. From teas to curries to desserts, the fennel seed is versatile. Not only does it add an aromatic, warm, and slightly sweet flavor to dishes, but it also has numerous documented health benefits.
Top 5 Fennel Seed Substitutes
The best fennel seed substitute is Licorice root because it has very similar composition to fennel seed. Other fennel seed alternatives are Anise and Caraway seeds.
1. Licorice Root
The first and most obvious fennel seed replacement on our list is licorice root. It is a no-brainer substitute because fennel seed itself is often likened to black licorice. Both substances provide that same sweet kick and distinctive flavor to your dish.
Where fennel seed is a dried portion of the herb plant, licorice is harvested from the root of the licorice plant. As such, it will have a slightly different texture and will be much stronger than fennel seed, so if you’re using it as a fennel seed substitute, be sure to use about half the amount of licorice.
Like fennel seed, licorice root also offers health benefits such as soothing heartburn and sore throats. However, because of some of the compounds in it, licorice is best if not eaten regularly. Still, its inclusion as a fennel seed substitute in drink flavorings and meat rubs is perfectly safe.
Did you know that licorice candies aren’t actually flavored with licorice root? They’re flavored with another herb’s dried seed, which is next on our list.
These seeds are a natural substitute for fennel seeds, as they are often commonly mistaken for each other. They both feature a strong, warm licorice taste that adds an herbal spice to baked goods and drinks.
Although related to fennel, anise seed is a different plant entirely and is not related to the also commonly mistaken star anise. Anise seed is perfect for taking the place of fennel in baked goods like biscottis, in the filling of pies, or even as a component of ground meat. It’s often used to complement the flavor of sausage in particular.
Anise seed is similarly a great herb for your health. It contains necessary iron and aids to help fight depression and stomach ulcers. It can even combat certain types of fungi. In all, anise seed is nearly a dead-ringer for fennel seed. Similar to the licorice root, it’s much stronger than fennel seeds and you should use it in lesser quantities to achieve the same results.
Although caraway is not as famously sweet as fennel seeds, it is still a great substitute for them in baked goods and savory dishes.
You can buy whole or ground caraway. As a substitute for fennel seeds, whole caraway is better, as it imparts that same characteristic crunch and release of flavor. Ground caraway is much stronger than the whole version but good for any recipe that wouldn’t benefit from the distinctive crunch.
A common misconception is that the caraway used commonly in loaves of rye bread and other baked goods is in seed form, just like fennel; in fact, the caraway we use in cooking is the dried fruit of the caraway plant.
Although milder, caraway still features a version of that fennel-famous sweet licorice taste. It has a more earthy lean and even notes of pepper and citrus. Caraway is also another digestion-promoting, anti-inflammatory ingredient that works great for after-dinner consumption and for adding to teas.
Can’t find caraway seeds? See our guide to Caraway Seed Substitutes.
4. Dill Seeds
Although dill seeds are more similar in taste to caraway than to fennel seeds, they are still a good substitute for fennel seeds as a spice-flavoring in dips, rubs, or other spice mixes.
The more commonly used form of dill is the plant itself, which is a leafy green herb that many will recognize. The herb, used often in yogurt mixes for a Mediterranean flavor, carries a different taste than the seeds.
Dill seeds are a great fennel seed substitute for savory dishes. They are a great addition to roasted vegetables or any other cooked dish that could benefit from their strong but smooth flavor. For anyone who likes the taste of fennel seeds but would prefer a less robust version, dill seeds are the perfect option.
Dill seeds aren’t without their health benefits; they are high in iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium values.
Can’t find dill seeds? See our guide to Dill Weed Substitutes.
5. Cumin Seed
Although it provides a slightly different flavor than fennel seed, cumin seed is another favorite in Indian cuisine. It’s typically included in chili powder and other marinades and spice blends. This is another seed available in whole or ground form, with the whole form retaining its flavor for longer than the ground version.
Cumin is a great addition to rice or a meat rub or marinade. Its warm, earthy, sweet flavor is complemented by a little bit of bitterness that can play up the flavor of savory dishes well.
Although not a dead-ringer fennel seed substitute, it’s also a commonly-used digestive aid in Middle Eastern countries and India. It’s high in iron and other antioxidants that make it a great addition to a healthy diet.
Health Benefits of Fennel
The fresh bulb and dried seed of this plant are both very nutritious; they are low in calories but high in vitamin C, potassium, iron, fiber, and other important substances. Because this plant also contains polyphenol antioxidants, it’s known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
What it’s most known for, though, is its contributions to digestive health. In Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, fennel seed is used widely in teas and even consumed alone after meals to aid in proper appetite and digestion. On top of that, taking it after a meal also gives the added bonus of freshening breath!
Culinary Uses for Fennel Seed
Due to its sweet and distinctly warm and earthy flavor, fennel seeds often complement savory dishes. It is popular to add fennel in seasonings or rubs for red meat, sausage, or fish.
On the other end of the spectrum, fennel seed is also a favorite addition to sweet chai tea mixtures or other desserts that call for spicy sweetness. It works well in baked bread or any other kind of baked good that needs a touch of sweetness. For this reason, many people associate fennel seeds with a sort of Christmas-y taste.
Despite its unique flavor, several other tasty herbs can serve as good fennel seed substitutes in a pinch if you’re dying to make some of these incredible dishes!
Final Thoughts: Using a Substitute for Fennel Seed
When it comes to utilizing fennel seed in dishes, the sky’s the limit. Depending on how adventurous your taste buds are, you can try out fennel seeds in soups, sausages, lamb curries, baked bread, desserts, drinks, and more!
There is a good, appropriate fennel seed substitute for each of these cases should you ever find yourself without this unique ingredient. Each of these 5 substitutes for fennel seed would pair well with different dishes.
For example, anise seed lends itself to sweet dishes and meats, while caraway might go best in loaves of bread, and cumin seeds make the perfect fit for curry dishes. In all, it’s up to you which substitute for fennel seed will make the perfect addition to your dish.
If you’re trying out a fennel seed recipe for dinner or dessert tonight, don’t forget to revel in the great flavor it or any of its substitutes can add to your internationally-inspired dishes. Happy cooking!