By: Amy Grant
If you’re a cook who loves the flavor of black licorice, you no doubt commonly use fennel and/or anise seed in your culinary masterpieces. Many cooks use them interchangeably and may find them under either or both names in some grocers. But are anise and fennel the same? If there is a difference between anise and fennel, what is it?
Are Anise and Fennel the Same?
While both fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and anise (Pimpinella anisum) are native to the Mediterranean and both are from the same family, Apiaceae, there is, indeed, a difference. Sure, they both have a licorice flavor profile similar to tarragon or star anise (no relation to P. anisum), but they are completely different plants.
Fennel vs. Anise
Anise is an annual and fennel is a perennial. They both are used for their licorice flavor, which comes from the essential oil called anethole found in their seeds. As mentioned, many cooks use them fairly interchangeably, but there really is a difference in taste when it comes to fennel vs. anise.
Anise seed is the more pungent of the two. It is often used in Chinese five spice powder and Indian panch phoran and imparts a heavier licorice flavor than fennel. Fennel also has a licorice flavor, but one that is less sweet and not as intense. If you use fennel seed in a recipe that calls for the use of anise, you just may need to use a little more of it to get the correct flavor profile.
Other Anise and Fennel Differences
Fennel seeds come from a bulbing plant (Florence fennel) that is eaten as a vegetable. In fact, the entirety of the plant, seed, fronds, greens, and bulb are edible. Anise seed comes from a bush that is grown specifically for the seed; no other part of the plant is eaten. So, the difference between anise and fennel is actually pretty major.
That said, are anise and fennel differences enough to clarify the use of one or the other; that is, using fennel or anise in a recipe? Well, it really depends on the cook and the cuisine. If you are cooking and the recipe calls for greens or bulb, the clear choice is fennel.
Anise is the better option for sweets such as biscotti or pizzelle. Fennel, with its milder licorice flavor, also has a slightly woody flavor and, thus, works well in marinara sauce and other savory dishes. Anise seed, just to confuse the issue, is an entirely different spice, albeit with a licorice essence that comes from an evergreen tree and features prominently in many Asian cuisines.
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My Completely Justifiable Hatred for Black Licorice
Most people have never seen the source of all evil with their own eyes. I have. It manifested itself to me, as unlikely as this may sound, on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. I was touring a factory that made limoncello, the delightfully citrusy Italian liqueur, when my host offered to take me into another room. (In general, "being taken into another room" is never a good idea.) As I entered, she proudly announced that the large metal vat in the center of the room contained the flavoring concentrate that they dilute by a factor of 100 to make Sambuca, the horrifying Italian licorice liqueur. I held my breath, pantomimed taking a whiff to oblige my host, and stepped outside to have a quiet moment in which to ascertain that I was indeed still alive.
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Like all qualities that I find intrinsic to my being, I can't remember my first memory of hating all things black licorice, fennel, and anise. All I know is that the lingering, cloying, sickly sweetness has always been my own personal definition of a nightmare. I do recall also being genuinely baffled by the appeal of diet soda from an early age. And no wonder. Some theorize that glycyrrhiza glabra (an evil villain name if I ever saw one), the compound that gives fennel, black licorice, and anise their characteristically horrifying taste, is chemically similar to that of artificial sweeteners.
Though many cultures use fennel and licorice for medicinal purposes, it's apparently just as likely to give you lead poisoning or heart arrhythmia. And the fact that fennel-flavored food appears in so many guises is only further proof of its diabolical nature. Like pod people, my very closest friends and neighbors always encourage me to try the Underberg's, share a glass of raki, order the shaved fennel salad, and try the hipster Danish licorice. And I respond like I always do, by wondering whether they're members of an alien race who've infiltrated the Earth, and whose only easily detectable difference from actual humans is a love of that devil seed, fennel.
Unfortunately, one of these pod people turned out to be my own sister. My go-to candy at the movies was Goldenberg's Peanut Chews. Hers was Good & Plenty, and as she munched them in the theater, she'd release a cloud-like effluvia of saccharine that made me have to move seats. Later, her love of black licorice even extended to the salty, ammonia-scented hardcore stuff she discovered on a trip to Stockholm.
Later, I discovered that my sister's love of the stuff was just one more difference in our genetic code, like her blue eyes. According to flavor scientists, the aversion to certain tastes (like cilantro) seems to be inborn, while an aversion to aromas is learned behavior. Sickly-sweet glycyrrhiza glabra is definitely a taste, while the compound that gives licorice its characteristic aroma is anethole. And that means that my feelings about licorice's aroma are a bit more flexible. If you, like me, can tolerate a couple teaspoon of fennel seeds in your chicken, or endure the occasional nip of fennel seed in your Italian sausage, even though the notion of a glass of ouzo or pastis repulses you, you're able to tolerate the aroma of fennel rather than the taste.
But in an ideal world, I wouldn't be forced to make such compromises. The Fennel Mafia wouldn't be trying to infiltrate my every meal, snack, herbal tea, and cocktail. I'd live in a carefree world that's blissfully free of nausea-inducing seasonings. But until then, I'll shout it from the rooftops. Soylent Green is people—er, I mean, licorice is really, really gross.
What’s the Difference Between Fennel and Anise?
It’s easy to confuse fennel and anise because the flavors are similar, but they are totally different plants. In addition, the term “anise” is broadly used when talking about herbs, spices, foods, and flavor profiles. Certain herbs, such as basil and tarragon, are often described as “anise-flavored,” for example. And bulbous Florence fennel is sometimes—and incorrectly— referred to as “fresh anise.”
In the spice world, anise seed falls into the same flavor category as fennel seeds. The star anise used in Asian cuisines isn’t a seed but the fruit of an evergreen tree that’s native to China. And licorice—another spice/flavor term that is sometimes used interchangeably with anise—comes from an aromatic root.
Pet products containing fennel, anise or licorice generally list dosing instructions depending on their concentration and whether or not they are mixed with other ingredients. The potency varies depending on whether the product is whole ground herb, an extract, granular concentrate or even an essential oil version of the herb, so it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you buy human products, the dosing instructions are based on a 150 lb human, so just adjust the dosage for your dog’s weight. This is a standard way to dose herbs and can be used for other herbal products as well.