fennel vs. caraway: hints of anise-like flavor

fennel vs. caraway
Fennel and caraway seeds belong to the same plant family. Though they both have hints of anise and licorice, fennel is sweeter, while caraway is earthy and nutty. Fennel blends well with pork dishes, while people typically associate caraway with rye bread.

What is fennel?

Fennel is sweet and resembles an anise and licorice flavor. When added to a recipe (usually dishes with pork and seafood), they elevate the culinary piece by giving it an earthy and sweet taste.

Fennel seeds are dried versions of the fruit harvested from the fennel plant. This green bulbous, feathery plant is an herb belonging to the Apiaceae family — carrot family, alongside celery, coriander, cumin, and caraway.

What parts of fennel do you use?

Apart from the fennel seeds, all parts of the fennel plant have culinary uses. Many recipes call for its bulbs, which you can eat raw or cooked. You can use the stalks in stocks and soups, while the fronds make for great garnishes and flavorings for salads, sauces, and marinades.

What is caraway?

Caraway seeds are fruits of the caraway plant. They also go by the name “meridian fennel” and “Persian cumin.”

Unlike the sweet flavor of fennel, they have a sharper, more savory, earthy, and nutty taste. They also have a warm, spicy flavor profile and licorice notes similar to anise

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There are two varieties of caraway seeds. First is the biennial, the one you will commonly see in stores. The other is the annual, mainly used by cooks who grow their own caraway plants.

Caraway is common in rye bread, Italian sausage, and sauerkraut. They also pair well with cumin and dill seeds.

What is the difference between caraway and fennel?

Fennel vs. Caraway
Fennel vs. Caraway

Caraway and fennel have a similar flavor profile, including a licorice and anise flavor. Still, there are several differences to know about these two spices.

Origin

Fennel is indigenous to the southern Mediterranean region but is now cultivated in many areas — from Asia to North America and Europe. On the other hand, caraway is native to Asia and northern and central Europe.

Botanically, though they belong to the same family, fennel belongs to the Foeniculum genus, caraway to Carum

Appearance

Fennel, harvested from fennel flowers, has a color closer to green and gray, while caraway, the dried fruit of the caraway plant, is brown.

In terms of shape, they share a similar appearance — elongated, with lengthwise ridges. Fennel seeds are also flatter, while caraway seeds resemble a crescent shape. 

Flavor

Fennel seeds dominantly carry an anise and licorice-like flavor, just like cumin seeds. They lend sweetness to an array of recipes. Conversely, caraway boasts a more complex flavor. 

Apart from the hints of anise and licorice (the common flavor it shares with fennel), it has some earthiness and nuttiness. It also offers warm, spicy, peppery, and even citrusy notes. Between the two, caraway is more savory. 

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Applications

Fennel seeds are versatile seasonings for pork and seafood dishes. Their sweetness also balances the acidity in tomato sauces, so you can commonly see them as ingredients in tomato-based pasta dishes such as lasagna.

Cooks also add fennel seeds to stews and soups to get the mild licorice flavor and make the final output even heartier. Another common usage of these seeds involves baked goods. 

Fennel seeds are also a key part of the Chinese five-spice powder and a staple in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine like curries. In India, particularly, people chew them post-meal to help freshen their breath.

Meanwhile, caraway seeds are a mainstay in European and European-inspired meat dishes, sauerkraut, and bread. People use them to make Irish soda bread, caraway black bread, and caraway seed cake.

As a seasoning, they pair well with pork and beef. They also add a complex flavor to soups, salads, and goulash. Cooks further use caraway as a flavoring agent in cheese. In the Middle East, it enhances the taste of their traditional pudding. However, as it’s not as sweet as fennel, it’s not used in as many sweet dishes. 

You can find both in some recipes for liqueurs. 

The two seeds also have medicinal applications. They’re rich in calcium, potassium, other minerals, vitamins, and essential oils. As for their health benefits, experts traditionally use caraway to help cure pneumonia and indigestion. On the other hand, fennel is a treatment for digestive, endocrine, and reproductive diseases.

Shelf life

Generally, whole spices can last up to 4 years when properly stored (in a cool, dark place). This applies to caraway and fennel seeds and other whole seeds, such as mustard, star anise, and coriander.

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Form

When you visit a grocery store, you’ll find fennel and carraway seeds as whole, dried seeds. However, people sometimes eat them raw. You can also boil them and drink them as tea.

Both seeds also have ground versions. However, since the seeds were turned into a fine powder, they have a more robust flavor. When used as a substitute for their whole seed counterparts, follow a 1:¾ ratio.

Comparison Table

FennelCaraway
OriginHarvested from the flowers of the fennel plant, Southern MediterraneanDried version of the fruits of the caraway plant, Asia and Northern and Central Europe
AppearanceFlat, elongated, and green and gray seedsCrescent-shaped, elongated, and brown seeds
FlavorDominantly anise and licoriceEarthy and nutty with hints of anise and licorice
ApplicationsBest used with seafood and pork dishesBest used in rye bread
Shelf lifeUp to 4 yearsUp to 4 years
FormWhole, dried, and rawWhole, dried, and raw

Can I use caraway seeds instead of fennel?

Fennel and caraway seeds can be used interchangeably. However, the difference in flavor can be noticeable. Caraway lacks the same sweetness as fennel, so it may not be the best substitute.

If you are looking for a better replacement for fennel, consider anise seeds because they have an identical taste (though anise is a bit more intense). Use a 1:1 substitution ratio. For salad dressings and sauces, celery seeds can work as a swap. Like anise, you should use the same amount as the recipe requires.

When cooking savory recipes, another option as a swap is dill. Dill seeds are less intense, so you will need 2 teaspoons for every 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds.

Randell

Randell loves experimenting in the kitchen (with his family and friends as willing victims). He sees cooking as a great adventure. To enjoy that, he believes this is the recipe: a tad of creativity, a dash of courage, a pinch of humility, and a ton of love.

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