Learn how to harvest, store and cook with all parts of the perennial herb fennel.
Herb fennel’s anise flavor and digestion-soothing properties make it useful in a variety of foods and drinks. It can be expensive to buy, but it’s fairly easy to grow, as described in growing perennial fennel.
Fennel fronds, pollen, and seeds are all used in cooking, though the seed is the most widely used. Harvest and storage procedures for each part are different.
This article is about herb fennel or perennial fennel, whose cultivars include sweet fennel, common fennel, and bronze fennel. Annual, Florentine, or bulbing fennel is a different variety, grown primarily for its thick stem bases.
How to Harvest Fresh Fennel
Each part of the fennel plant is harvested during different times of the growing cycle.
Harvesting Fennel Fronds
Fennel produces delicate finely cut leaves in abundance. Pinch off or snip fronds at any time during the growing season when you want them. Don’t take more than 1/3 of the plant’s leaves at any given time unless you are growing it as an annual.
If you want to keep your fennel plant producing more leaves, you may want to pinch off the top and center of the plant to stop it from going to seed. But since fennel seed is the most popular and versatile recipe ingredient, you’ll want to let at least some of your fennel plants set seed.
Harvesting Fennel Pollen and Flowers
The Sonoma County Cooperative Extension suggests harvesting fennel pollen. (They add that store-bought fennel pollen is extremely expensive, over $20/ounce.)
When you see your fennel flowers turning heavy and yellow with pollen, cut some heads off. Tap them into a clean, dry container to release loose pollen. Then, let the heads air-dry and then rub the florets between your fingers to release more dried pollen. (You’ll also have to pick out tiny stems.)
They also suggest harvesting blossoms, letting them dry for 3 or 4 days, and then stuffing them into jars and covering them with olive oil. You can get 4 or 5 flowers in a 4-6 oz. jar. Screw the lid on and let the flowers infuse themselves into the oil at room temperature for 3-7 days. This oil can be used cold in salad dressings, or you can grill or sauté meat or vegetables in it.
How to Harvest Fennel Seeds
Fennel seeds are harvested in late summer, early autumn. Wait until the end of the blooming cycle when the heads turn brown. Cut off the flower heads as soon as they are fully dried and begin to shatter and drop their seeds. Place the seed heads in a brown paper bag. Once they are fully dry, you can shake the seeds loose.
If your seed heads are already starting to drop seeds in the garden, you can also take the bags directly out to the growing plants and shake the seeds in the bag.
You may want to leave a few flower heads on the plants to self-seed and save you the trouble of starting a new succession of fennel.
Cooking with Fennel
Many different parts of the fennel plant can be used in recipes.
Fennel fronds are often used in salads, dressings, and coleslaws. They also make good garnishes for dishes cooked with other parts of the fennel plant. Fish cooked on a bed of fennel fronds will absorb their delicate flavor.
Fennel stems can be stuffed into whole roasting fowl to flavor the meat. You can also bake bread or roast fish or meat on a fennel-stem bed.
Fennel pollen can be added to fennel vinaigrette dressing. You can also rub it onto meat or sprinkle it over vegetables before frying or grilling them.
Fennel seeds are the most widely used and versatile part of the plant. You can make them into a simple digestive-tonic tea or a fancy chai. The anise-flavored seeds are often featured in specialty cake and cookie recipes.
Fennel seed is also often used with ground or roast meat and with fish. It can also add zest to a wide range of vegetarian recipes. For details see [link to Cooking with Fennel article]
Preserving Fennel: How Long Does It Last?
Fresh fennel fronds and stems will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in a plastic bag. )
Preserving Fennel Fronds and Stems
Freezing is the best way to preserve fennel fronds and stalks for longer periods. Rinse them in cool water, place them in sealed bags or other containers, and freeze. Frozen herbs will keep their color and flavor better if they are cooked briefly before freezing.
Like many herbs, fennel leaves may lose some flavor when dried. Fedco Seeds recommends drying whole leaves to keep the flavor profile intact. This process preserves their flavor for at least a year.
You can also cut whole stems and dry them “slowly in a cool oven”. The larger pieces help to preserve the herb’s goodness.
Drying Fennel Seeds
Fennel seeds are usually dried. You may set them on screens or trays or in paper bags. Dry in a cool, airy place. When the seeds fall from the flower heads, they are dry enough to be transferred to a sealed jar.
Besides being ornamental and attractive to butterflies, fennel offers many different usable parts for cooking. Decide whether you’re managing any given plant for frond production or flowers.
Fennel self-seeds and spreads readily, so with time, you can have all the fennel you want for many different cooking uses.