Fennel seeds come from the fennel herb, and they’re actually dried seeds commonly used as a spice. The drying process seems to elevate their flavors and aromas, resulting in warmness and sweetness.
When it comes to culinary applications, possibilities with fennel seeds are endless. They’re perfect in meat and fish marinades, all vegetable dishes, but they can also be used in sauces and baked goods – since cooking enhances the flavor.
While fennel seeds have a very unique flavor and aroma, there are some alternatives you could use as a fennel seed substitute. Keep on reading to find the best solution!
The best substitutes for fennel seeds
Fennel seeds are actually seeds of the fennel plant, which consists of a white bulb and green stalks with deeply aromatic leaves. Fennel belongs to the carrot family and can be cooked or eaten raw, especially in Italian cuisine.
Fennel seeds are harvested from the flowers of the fennel and then dried, which turns their color into pale green or sometimes tan. When it comes to flavor, it is quite similar to the actual fennel plant.
The taste could be described as a mix of sweet, earthy, and licorice. It is strong, refreshing, but not too overpowering. When it comes to fennel seeds, it is important to add a little bit at a time and layer the flavors instead of going overboard.
Since they’re a part of the parsley family, fennel seeds are often compared or even mistaken for anise. However, while anise is grown only for the purpose of harvesting the seeds, fennel seeds do come with an edible bulb and aromatic leaves.
When it comes to culinary uses, fennel seeds can be used as you would any other spice. They’re ideal for pork and other kinds of meat, all kinds of seafood (both for marinades and dry rub), and they can even be used to create an aromatic crust.
At the beginning of the drying process, fennel seeds are pale green. As they age, they generally turn greyish, brown, or tan. Also, the older they are, the more intense are the flavors. With maturity, both the warmness and the licorice flavor enhance.
However, the fullness of flavor is achieved when the dry fennel seeds are roasted. This brings out the earthy, nutty flavor, and allows for a nice consistency if they’re going to be ground into fine powder.
Besides their culinary use, fennel seeds are often used for many gastric issues, including heartburn and bloating.
Whether you’re not a fan of their strong flavor, or you’d simply use something else in your dishes, there’s always a replacement for fennel seeds you can rely on.
Anise is so similar to fennel seeds that many people even confuse them, which means it’s a great substitute for fennel seeds. Besides the seed form, anise is also available as an extract or oil, which are far more concentrated.
Anise seeds are usually curved, small, and brown or grey. While they don’t have an edible bulb, both the stems and the leaves of the anise plant can be used as herbs. Also, it is important to note that anise is in no way related to the star anise spice.
Just like fennel seeds, anise seeds also have a licorice flavor, but they’re also sweet, slightly earthy, highly aromatic, and can also be a tad spicy.
2. Cumin seeds
Cumin seeds resemble fennel seeds – especially when it comes to color and shape. They’re also small-shaped, brown, or grey oval seeds, and they can be used both whole or as a cumin powder.
However, when it comes to flavor, cumin seeds are more on the pungent side, and they can even be a bit hot and peppery. They do have some sweetness to them, and the earthiness and warmness make them a great alternative to fennel seeds.
Another similarity between the two types of seeds is that both are known to help digestion. Cumin is commonly used in Indian recipes, and it is the key spice in the traditional garam masala spice blend.
Caraway comes from the dried fruit of the caraway plant, so they’re actually not seeds. However, people still refer to them as caraway seeds, especially due to their appearance. These seeds are quite aromatic and a little bit goes a long way.
When it comes to flavor, it could be described as light anise with a hint of licorice. There’s also a subtle touch of peppery, yet citrusy and refreshing taste, with an earthy aroma. As you can tell, the flavor profile is quite deep and complex.
4. Licorice root powder
If you’re looking to substitute fennel seeds in terms of that distinct licorice flavor, there’s no better option than the licorice root powder. It is a common flavoring agent, especially in baking, but it is also used in candy.
When it comes to the complexity of flavor, licorice root takes the win, since it combines so many flavors and aromas that are hard to put into words. It is a mixture of sweetness, pungency, with a peppery, earthy note.
Thanks to its unmatched versatility, licorice root powder can be used as a flavor enhancer both in sweets and savory dishes.
5. Fennel seed powder
Fennel seed powder is basically crushed fennel seeds, but for some people, it may be easier to determine the right dose with the powder. It is also a better choice if you want it to blend with the dish’s consistency without adding any texture.
Aside from being used as a spice both in your cooked and baked dishes, fennel seed powder can also be used in tincturing or added to herbal syrups. Flavor-wise, the powder tends to be a bit more subtle than the actual seed.
Other than that, you can expect the same flavor profile, predominantly sweet, with a touch of licorice and earthiness. The only difference may be in the intensity, but you can always adjust the dose accordingly.
6. French tarragon
French tarragon is also in the licorice flavor category, and it can definitely replace fennel seeds in all your recipes if you enjoy this kind of flavor profile. In fact, they’re so similar that you can use them interchangeably in a 1:1 ratio.
However, if you want an even more intense flavor, get your hands on fresh French tarragon, as it is far more aromatic and licorice. On the other hand, if you prefer to use dry herbs, French tarragon is also available in dried form.
French tarragon, besides providing that distinct licorice flavor, is also slightly sweet, with a hint of eucalyptus aroma and a touch of peppery taste. The French refer to it as the king of herbs thanks to its complexity and intoxicating aroma.
7. Dill seeds
Dill seeds come from the dill plant which belongs to the carrot family. These flat, oval seeds are quite similar to caraway, and they also have similar culinary applications. This fennel seed replacement is often used in acidic foods, as well as cucumbers, carrots, and legumes.
Both the leaves and the seeds of the dill plant are highly aromatic and often used with salmon dishes, soups, and pickles. Keep in mind that fresh dill is far more flavorful, while the seeds are more on the subtle side and you may have to adjust the amount.
Dried dill seeds have a dominant herblike aroma and a unique pungency with a hint of sweetness and earthiness.
Available both in the form of seeds and powder, mahlab is a common spice in Mediterranean cooking. While the seeds do have a stronger flavor and a more intense aroma, they need to be precooked before being added to your dishes.
You may wonder why is that? With cooking, mahlab seeds release their dominant bitterness that could overpower all the other flavor notes. By precooking them, you’re making room for their earthy, nutty, subtly sweet taste.
While mahlab is usually added to sweet dishes due to its fruity aroma, it is also a refreshing spice that can brighten up your sauces and soups.
Parsley is probably one of the most popular and widely used herbs in the world, and something most of us constantly use in cooking, especially in soups, stews, and fish dishes. It is a quick, convenient substitution for fennel seeds if you’re in a hurry.
It is available both fresh and dried, and while fresh parsley certainly provides more aroma and a stronger flavor, for many people, dried parsley is a more convenient option – especially when it comes to storage.
The flavor of parsley is clean, slightly peppery, with a hint of licorice. It is highly aromatic, and it adds an earthy, herbaceous touch to any dish. Due to its vibrant green color and interesting shape, parsley is also a common choice for garnish.
Celery is probably one of the most versatile vegetables out there, and not only because of its flavor profile. It is available in many forms and shapes which contributes to its versatility and ease of use.
For a more subtle flavor and maximum convenience, you can use celery powder. Celery sticks are a common choice for soups, broths, stews, and other dishes with a vegetable base, while celery leaves have the strongest aroma.
The taste of celery is layered and complex, being a mix of both strong and subtle flavors. It is herbaceous, slightly sweet, earthy, and sometimes a bit pungent.
11. Anisette Liqueur
Perhaps you’re not used to adding liquor to your dishes, but they can often make a huge difference in the aroma and the flavor. Also, they’re quite convenient, as no preparation is required, and their flavors are already developed.
Anisette Liqueur is a French liqueur, infused with aniseed, and it offers a low alcohol content with a rather sweet flavor. The base of this liqueur is a mixture of seeds, added to neutral-flavored alcohol and mixed with simple syrup.
This kind of anise-flavored liquid is an amazing substitute for fennel seeds in sauces, soups, as well as sweet fillings and dips.
How to choose a fennel seed substitute
When choosing a fennel seed substitute, the decision comes down to your personal preference and the recipe you’re following. Most of the options we mentioned offer a similar flavor profile, so you can’t go wrong with either.
Anise, cumin seeds, caraway, and dill seeds are probably the closest alternatives, as they have that licorice flavor, earthy aroma, and a similar appearance and texture.
On the other hand, licorice root powder, fennel seed powder, and French tarragon don’t offer a similar texture, but if you’re looking for a resemblance in flavor, you can’t go wrong with either of these spices.
The best choices for your sweet dishes, especially pastries and fillings, include mahlab and Anisette Liqueur. They’re both highly aromatic and predominantly sweet, but you can also experiment with them when preparing savory dishes, as well.
And finally, we have parsley and celery – the two staples of pretty much every kitchen in the world. They’re herbaceous, aromatic, and suitable for pretty much any savory dish that may cross your mind.