Caramelized Fennel: The Best Fennel You’ll Ever Eat

Caramelized fennel.

No one is happier than us that spring has arrived, but the new season does provide a few cooking challenges. After a full winter of kale, we tend to go overboard with spring produce at the farmers market- so we have piles of asparagus, artichokes and fennel to cook every week. We are OK with the asparagus and artichokes, we have plenty of good recipes for those veggies. But what are we supposed to do with all this fennel?

If you don’t cook with fennel, it is a large, layered white bulb with a fluffy green top. It is in season spring and early summer (there is also a fall crop in some regions). Fennel has a crisp texture and tastes like licorice, or “anise”, if you want to be nice. With anise as the lead flavor of fennel, it becomes a challenge to find a compelling use for the stuff. Fennel is tasty shaved on salads or as a minor component in fish stews, but if you go a bit crazy and buy four bulbs, you need a dish that uses it all. And it would be nice if it actually tasted good.

Happily, we found a dish that doesn’t just use up the fennel, it really rocks- you will actually want to buy fennel on a regular basis. And it is easy, too. You simply caramelize the fennel. That’s it. Fennel, olive oil, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. A sharp knife, a hot pan and 20 minutes. And you suddenly get a great snack or side dish that features sweet, crispy fennel with just a nice touch of the anise flavor.

How did we find this recipe? We went to the experts. We looked at Judy Rodgers’ “Zuni Cafe Cookbook”, “The Victory Garden Cookbook” and Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Vegetables” looking for a good fennel recipe. The one conclusion they all shared was that deep-fried fennel (usually part of an Italian “fritti” dish) is super-tasty, sweetens the fennel and softens the anise flavor. But if you are like us, you are not ready to make deep-fried dishes every day. Luckily, Carolyn noticed that Alice Waters did provide a recipe for caramelizing the fennel in a hot skillet with a small amount of oil, so we decided to try it.

All you do with the fennel is trim the top and bottom from the fennel bulbs, slice it thin (but nothing crazy), and remove the cores.  As for cooking, you will need a large skillet, ¼ a cup of good olive oil and medium high heat. You then cook the fennel in the hot oil, making sure to brown the fennel, NOT steam it. When the fennel slices are golden brown, about 10-12 minutes, you are done. Season with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Serve as a snack or side dish. Life should always be this easy.

As for the flavor of the dish, it is slightly sweet with just a pleasant touch of anise flavor. Both Carolyn and I found the flavor and texture reminiscent of fried eggplant, a dish we eat whenever we can. We added the lemon to the recipe and it provides some nice sourness and acidity to play with the suddenly sweet fennel. We both love the dish as a snack, but would also serve caramelized fennel as a side dish with fish or chicken. Carolyn thinks it is the best spring vegetable dish we’ve made, I still like the asparagus and rice soup a touch more, but I would be happy to make this fennel dish anytime.

Caramelized Fennel:

(Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables)

Notes Before You Start:

  • The key to this dish is to brown, not steam, the fennel. Keep the pan hot and spread out the fennel, no crowding. Cook in batches if necessary- the only problem will be that you will finish the first batch before the next batch is done. Yes, this dish is that good.

What You Get: A great fennel recipe. Really.

What You Need: No special equipment is required.

How Long: 20 minutes, maybe more if cooking in batches. 5 minutes of prep and 15 minutes of cooking. You can make this dish any time.

Ingredients:

(Serves 4 as a side dish)

  • 2 Large fennel bulbs
  • ¼ Cup olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Black pepper
  • ½ Lemon

Assemble:

  1. Using a very sharp knife, cut the top and bottom from the fennel bulbs and then remove tough or bruised outer layers. You will end up with a bulb about the size of your fist.
  2. Slice the bulbs in half and then remove the cores from the fennel. Then cut the fennel lengthwise into 1/8 inch slices (it is ok if a little thicker).
  3. Heat a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the olive oil and then the fennel slices. Spread the fennel out in the pan to encourage browning.
  4. Cook for 10-12 minutes, flipping the fennel slices every few minutes, until golden brown.
  5. Remove the fennel from the pan and drain off any excess oil. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, to taste. Serve.
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97 thoughts on “Caramelized Fennel: The Best Fennel You’ll Ever Eat

  1. Like me, it seems you see fennel as a glorious vegetable that is enobled by camelization.

    I make a variation of this dish with the addition of white onion, capers and crushed red pepper cooked covered but with no lemon. I still get the carmelized fennel, but it is softer. Sweet, salty and spicy all in one dish– and never have any leftovers. A great side dish for meat or fish.

    I like your lemon idea and will add it the next time I make fennel– perhaps for Easter as a side dish.

  2. A fabulous way to cook fennel, and not one that I’ve tried yet, bt soon will. I make a fennel, lmeon and vodka risotto, and the fennel definitely softens in flavour with the cooking

  3. Thanks for sharing this. It looks incredible and I’ve got some fennel growing in the shade of beans and swiss chard. I know what I will do with it now!!

  4. Sure, this post is from April, but WordPress directed me here, and I’m glad it did because caramelizing fennel is a fabulous idea. Thanks for a great tip for when the fennel mood next strikes. (It’s still at the markets here in New England). Cheers, PKN (And thanks for the recent like on my chocolate zucchini bread!)

    • Glad you like the recipe…we’ve seen it restaurants recently as well (not taking credit- it’s Alice Waters’ recipe) but it is good to see more fennel out there…such a good flavor…

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  6. I adore fennel, yet failed miserably when I tried to grow it here in Virginia. The stuff is so darned expensive at WF, I rarely embibe. Have not seen it at the farmer’s market either. Great recipe!

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  8. I like to add fennel to fish risotto or have it caramelized as well, but in a ‘soft’ version that I call “braised fennel”. This is made with the lid on, so the fennel caramelizes and steams at the same time. I’ve never tried your ‘crunchy’ version, that is certainly something to try…

    • We often add fennel to fish with good results…the risotto idea sounds great.

      The “crunchy” version is best as a side or just a snack (it can bethat good)….

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  10. I love caramelized anything – and fennel is already great. Putting the two together is amazing!
    In addition to a side dish, I sometimes use fennel to spice up my morning routine by making fennel frittatas. You should give it a try!

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  12. I planted fennel in our garden last year, and then had to google a recipe as I didn’t know what to do with it either. I found a fennel and gouda pizza that was so delicious. I plan on planting more fennel this year and would love to try carmelizing it as you suggested.

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  14. Roasted fennel halved came home with me last nite, what to do…turned the oven on 375, unrolled a package of crescent rolls, sliced 3 small, sweet peppers,and butter, got the pesto off the fridge door, spread sunflower oil on a cookie sheet, rolled a piece of fennel, pepper, butter with a dollop of pesto, baked to perfection in 10 minutes…makes 8 big and flakey style warm side dishes for soups and salads

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  16. I purchased fennel as an exploration in veggie tastes, and this recipe was extremely more-ish! So more-ish that I have purchased fennel again today (frying pan is heating as I type), and I hope it’s still available around here in early June so I can serve it to friends. I’m just eating it on nacho chips, and it’s so good!

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  19. I bought fennel for the first time and I absolutely hated it. Left them in my fridge for two weeks and then I found this recipe. Glad to say I finished up all my fennel and I’ll be heading out to buy more next week!

  20. Was just cursing the fennel in my fridge (it was in our csa box this week) now I know what to do with it. I’m going to try adding this to our veggie omelet in the morning! Maybe some artichoke hearts too for the salty balance!

  21. I have never eaten fennel before. I like it, almost like fried onions with a difference. can recommend it to anyone. great stuff.

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  23. I got a fennel DoTerra oil in the mail a couple days ago and it smells so good I want to drink it. I do believe this will be happening in my kitchen soon! ;)

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  25. Our household is a big fan of fennel, kids included. While it is in season it would be rare NOT to find a bulb or two in our veggie crisper. We use it in everyithing – diced finely and fried off together with diced onion as a base for tomato pasta sauce, cut up in chunky pieces in casseroles, caramelized as a side dish to meat of fish or sliced finely fresh in salads. We use all of it – the bulb, the stalks and of course the ‘leaves’. It is such a fabulous and versatile vegetable.

  26. Just prepared this recipe today. Never knew what fennel actually tasted like, except for fennel seed that I add to Italian dishes. Bravo! It will become a staple in my diet from now on.

  27. Kia Ora from New Zealand, I have self seeded fennel growing around my house every year and never know what to do with it. I look forward to trying your fennel recipe, thank you for that. I wonder how it would go on the BBQ this summer. Cheers. :-)

  28. I’m excited to try this… I started participating in Bountiful Baskets last week, so I never know what’s going to be in my basket each week. It’s a great way for me to start trying new fruits and veggies I wouldn’t normally buy. Last week I tried persimmons for the first time, yum! This week I had to figure out what in the world to do with fennel. This recipe seems very doable, and sounds like something I would enjoy!

    • Hope you enjoy the fennel- we love it caramelized but also in soups w/ fish. A great ingredient once you get started with it.

      Persimmons rock…persimmon read with Hachiyas or salads w/ Fuyus are our faves…

  29. Pingback: Caramelized Fennel? Yes please! | Artizone Blog

  30. Have cooked with fennel before, but struggled getting it satisfactory for my palate. This recipe works well. The higher heat versus steaming is bang on. However I found that the fennel lost it’s flavour. But this is balanced out by the addition of about 1 tbsp of finely chopped dill at the end. I also added a crushed clove of garlic towards the end of cooking so it cooks but doesn’t burn, and black pepper along with the lemon. Delicious !. Thanks for this – it is a ‘keeper’ ! :)))

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