Fennel seeds - A guide with culinary usage ideas plus their medicinal value.
What are fennel seeds?
Fennel seeds are the dried "fruit" of the fennel plant and herb (Foeniculum vulgare). The plant has feathery leaves, which are used as a herb and it also produces yellow flowers, which when they die, seeds form in clumps, and are collected once they have ripened and hardened.
The seeds are oval in shape and a green or greenish brown in colour. They are often mistaken for aniseed, however fennel seeds are slightly larger and less pungent.
The seeds and leaves of the fennel plant both have an aniseed or liquorice flavour, although the flavour of fennel is milder and somewhat sweeter than aniseed or liquorice.
Fennel seeds are actually a spice, although the leaves, stalks and roots of the plant are known as a herb. The bulb-like vegetable called fennel, Florence fennel, finocchio or Italian fennel is related to the herb fennel and is similar in taste and flavour, however they are not the same plant.
The history of fennel seeds
The fennel plant is native to the southern European and Mediterranean regions, although nowadays it is cultivated and produced in other parts of the world such as India, China and Egypt.
Fennel has been around for thousands of years and it is said that the name has Greek origins. In 490 BC the Ancient Greeks fought with the Persians in a famous battle at the city of Marathon. According to the story, the battleground was actually a field of fennel and the word for fennel is derived for the Greek word for "marathon".
The Romans introduced the spice to the UK and other European countries and over time it was also transported East to Asia and China.
The Puritans took the spice over to the US, where they called fennel seeds "meeting seeds", due to the fact that during long church sermons or Puritan meetings, they chewed on the seeds to fend off hunger and tiredness.
Today fennel and fennel seeds are popular in Northern and Southern European cuisines as well as in Chinese and Indian cooking, where they are often included in specific spice blends.
Medicinal uses of fennel seeds
Medicinally fennel seeds have traditionally been used to settle the stomach and digestive system. This is due to the high levels of certain components that are known to prevent muscle spasms and cramps. In the Indian culture, fennel seeds are often chewed after a meal in order to prevent gas or indigestion. The seeds can also be made into an after dinner digestive drink to relieve the same symptoms.
Other, but not necessarily less important medicinal and therapeutic uses of fennel seeds include:
- Can relive bloating and fluid retention.
- Reduce all kinds of stomach discomfort and pain.
- It can increase the flow of breast milk for nursing mothers.
- As a mouthwash, fennel seeds can help to relieve toothache, gum disease and sore throats.
- Fennels seeds are said to be a mild expectorant, which means they can help clear congested lungs from phlegm and mucus.
- An eyewash can relieve tired, irritated and strained eyes. It has long been believed that a concoction from fennel seeds can improve the eyesight when applied in the eye area.
- It has also been long thought that fennel seeds can help with weight-loss and obesity, as chewing on the seeds can suppress hunger.
- Can help with bladder infections such as cystitis.
- Chewing the seeds will freshen the breath and can take away the smell and taste after eating garlic.
Buying and storing fennel seeds
Fennel seeds can be bought from your local supermarket or specialist herb and spice shop. You will most definitely find them in shops or markets that specialise in Indian and Chinese food products.
The freshest and best quality seeds will be a bright green colour and these are the best seeds for cooking. As the seeds age their colour changes to a darker green and then a brownish green to grey colour.
You can buy the seeds in a whole or ground form. The whole seeds will keep for longer and you can easily grind them yourself at home with a pestle and mortar or a spice mill.
Store the seeds in a dark cupboard away from the sunlight in an airtight glass container. Try to use the seeds within 6 months.
Preparing the seeds before cooking
The seeds can be used without preparing them in any way, particularly if you are using them in a sweet dish or to flavour bread.
However, if the seeds are being used for a savoury recipe, they may be toasted or heated in a dry frying pan for two or three minutes before grinding or crushing, as this will accentuate the flavour and bring out the full aroma.
Toasting the seeds in this way actually changes the flavour of the seeds slightly, giving them a stronger and spicier flavour rather than a sweeter and milder one.
Culinary uses of fennel seeds
Fennel seeds have different uses in different parts of the world. In Scandinavia and central Europe, the seeds are used in baking, particularly in rye breads and sweet pastries.
Fennel is extremely popular in Italy where they are often used to make sausages.
In India fennel seeds are one of the ingredients of the common spice blend panch poran, which also contains mustard and fenugreek seeds and cumin and are used to flavour curries.
As well as flavouring certain meats and poultry, fennel is more frequently used to flavour fish and seafood in particular.
Below are a number of ideas on how you can use fennel seeds in the kitchen:
- Use fennel seeds to make fish soup and fish stock.
- Add fennel seeds to salads, particularly cucumber salad.
- Add to soft cheese and spread on bread.
- Use the seeds when making bread or biscuits.
- Use in sausage mixtures.
- Add to curries.
- Use in any pork dishes such as stews or casseroles.
- Sprinkle ground fennel seeds over fish or meat.
- Use in Italian-style pasta sauces.
- Use in pickling solutions.
- Use in a marinade for meat, fish or vegetables.
- Add to poaching or steaming liquid for fish and shellfish.
- Add to couscous, lentil, bean or bulgur wheat dishes.
- Add to homemade coleslaw or potato salad.
- Use to make salad dressings such as vinaigrette.
Fennel seed Recipes
A selection of recipes for using fennel seeds in the kitchen including bouillabaisse, fennel-flavoured meatballs and Swedish Limpa bread.
Bouillabaisse is a classic fish stew originating from the Marseille region of France. It contains different types of fish and seafood and is flavoured with tomatoes, saffron, garlic and herbs.
- 2 lb (905 g) of mixed fish fillets (monkfish, red snapper, sea bass)
- 25 - 30 mussels in their shells
- 12 large cooked tiger prawns
- crab claws
- 2 pints (1.1 l) of fish stock
- 14 oz (400 g) tin of plum tomatoes
- 1 sliced onion
- 2 sliced sticks of celery
- 1 sliced leek
- 1 bouquet garni
- 2 strips of orange peel
- 3 tbsp of olive oil
- 2 crushed cloves of garlic
- 2 tbsp of freshly chopped parsley
- 1 tbsp of freshly chopped thyme
- 1 tbsp of tomato purée
- 1 tsp of fennel seeds
- pinch of saffron strands
- salt and pepper
- Cut the fish fillets into bite-size chunks.
- Heat the olive oil in a large soup pan. Add the onion, celery, leek and garlic and cook for about 10 minutes until the vegetables have softened.
- Stir in the tomatoes and add the bouquet garni, orange peel, tomato purée and the fennel seeds. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring well.
- Carefully pour in the fish stock and add the saffron.
- Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 30 - 40 minutes.
- Add the pieces of fish and the mussels and cook for about 5 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Discard any mussels that do not open.
- Add the cooked prawns and crab claws.
- Stir in the freshly chopped parsley and thyme and cook for 1 minute.
- Check the seasoning and add any salt or pepper if necessary.
- Serve into soup bowls with fresh crusty bread.
These meatballs are big and tasty and full of herbs and flavour. They are even cooked in a healthier way, as they are baked in the oven rather than fried in oil.
- 12 oz (340 g) of minced beef
- 4 oz (115 g) of minced pork
- 4 oz (115 g) of breadcrumbs
- 2 oz (55 g) of chopped onions
- 1 egg
- 3 tbsp of Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp of dried oregano
- 2 tsp of fennel seeds
- 1 tsp of dried basil
- 1 crushed clove of garlic
- salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).
- Place all of the ingredients together into a large mixing bowl and combine with a spoon or with your hands.
- With your hands divide the mixture into 8 and form large round meatballs from each portion.
- Place the meatballs onto a rack in the oven with a roasting tray underneath to catch any fat that will drip from the meatballs during cooking.
- Bake in the oven for 25 - 30 minutes. Turn the meatballs during cooking.
- Serve hot with a pasta sauce, in between bread or with a side salad and chips.
Swedish Limpa Bread
This traditional Swedish bread is hugely popular in Sweden and all over the world. It combines a number of different flavours such as molasses, rye, orange, aniseed and fennel.
- 1½ lb (680 g) of rye flour
- 8 oz (225 g) of white flour
- 18 fl oz (510 ml) of warm milk
- 3½ oz (100 g) of molasses
- 2 oz (55 g) of melted butter
- 1 oz (30 g) of dried yeast
- 2 tsp of ground fennel
- 2 tsp of ground aniseed
- 1 tsp of grated orange rind
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 1 tsp of salt
- Place the yeast into a large mixing bowl and mix together with a small amount of the milk.
- Add the sugar, mix together and leave to one side for 10 minutes until the mixture is frothy and has doubled in volume.
- Combine the melted butter with the remaining milk and pour it onto the yeast. Stir well.
- Add the molasses, salt, fennel, aniseeds and orange rind and mix well with a wooden spoon.
- Add about ¼ of the flour and mix and beat together until a smooth batter has formed and the ingredients have completely blended together.
- Continue to add the flour gradually, mixing and beating in between until all the rye and white flour have been used up and a smooth dough has formed.
- Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for around 10 minutes until smooth and elastic.
- Place the dough into a greased bowl, cover with a towel or greased cling film and set aside in a warm place until it has doubled in size (50 - 90 minutes).
- Grease a large baking tray.
- Divide the dough into three equal portions and knead each portion into an oval shaped roll, tapering at the ends.
- Place the loaves onto the prepared baking sheet, cover with a towel again and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size (1 hour).
- Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
- Place into the centre of a preheated oven and bake for 30 - 40 minutes. Brush with water twice during baking and twice after baking.
- To test if the bread is done, tap the top of the bread with your fingers and if there is a hollow sound it can be removed from the oven.
- Transfer the loaves to a wire rack and leave to cool.
- Serve warm.