I taste-tested a variety of fennel seed substitutes to find the best one for every cooking occasion. Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry substitute, or want a swap that fits your diet, I’ve got the answers.
The best substitutes for fennel seeds are anise seeds or star anise because both have a similar licorice flavor. Both are more potent than fennel seeds, so you don’t need to use much. Caraway seeds and fresh tarragon also have a decently strong licorice flavor.
I made a few different batches of these fennel and pork meatballs to test out different fennel seed substitutes. They were super tasty by the way! Definitely recommend.
Fennel seeds are an aromatic spice known for their sweet, anise-like flavor. You’ll find them in lots of different recipes, including sausages, breads, curries, and even desserts. They add a unique depth of flavor and are especially popular in Mediterranean and Indian cuisines.
Here are the substitutes I tested and my verdicts:
Anise seeds are definitely the best substitute for fennel seeds. They’re so similar that some people view them as essentially the same thing and use them interchangeably. Both of them contain a significant amount of the essential oil anethole, which is responsible for the distinct licorice flavor, but there are still some differences.
Anise seeds have a sweeter flavor and are more potent, especially when you first bite into them. I also found them to have a more delicate aroma (i.e the meatball wasn’t as fragrant) – but don’t let this fool you into using more than you need. Start with half the amount and add more next time if you didn’t think that was enough.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds with half the amount of anise seeds.
Star anise shares the licorice flavor of fennel seeds, but it’s much, much more intense so you don’t need to use very much. And because it’s not a seed it won’t work in every recipe, for example, it’s not a good option in bread where fennel seeds generally remain whole.
Because of the strong flavor, star anise pairs well with robust meats like pork or beef but I would exercise caution when using it in more delicate dishes like seafood-based ones. It can quickly become overpowering. One useful tip is to infuse the star anise into a liquid first and then use the liquid in your recipe – this means you can taste-test the liquid beforehand.
Psst… Star anise is a key ingredient in Chinese 5-spice powder, so you can use this in a real pinch to get a touch of licorice flavor.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds with half the amount of star anise. 1 whole star anise is equivalent to 1/2-1 tsp of ground star anise.
Caraway seeds are another decent substitute for fennel seeds especially in breads – they’re often found in rye bread. Caraway seeds share some of the characteristic licorice flavor of fennel, but they’re less sweet and also have a nutty, earthy flavor you won’t find in fennel seeds.
The flavor combination means they’re great at bringing loads of depth and complexity to recipes, so you won’t miss the fennel! I didn’t in my meatballs.
But because of the extra earthiness in caraway seeds, these aren’t the best substitute for sweet dishes.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds in a 1:1 ratio with caraway seeds (or start with less if you prefer).
Tarragon is a delightful and easy-to-find substitute for fennel seeds. It’s got notes of anise, but the overall flavor is more herbaceous than fennel, which is warmer.
It’s best to use fresh tarragon instead of fennel seeds because it has a more vibrant and pronounced anise flavor compared to the dried herb. The drying process mutes the flavors and also gives the tarragon a bitter undertone. Fresh tarragon will really shine in dressing and sauces or alongside chicken and fish.
Pro tip: You want French tarragon, which is the most common variety. Russian tarragon is much less flavorful.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds in a 1:1 ratio with fresh tarragon.
If you’re not a fan of the strong licorice flavor, try dill seeds instead. Dill seeds are milder and somewhat similar in flavor to caraway seeds, a substitute I mentioned earlier. They have a very subtle licorice flavor but are more aromatic and bitter with a hint of citrus.
Dill seeds work particularly well in pickling, bread, and seafood dishes, where their delicate flavor can shine without being overpowered. I could still taste them in my meatballs, but the overall flavor was more pork-y.
Did you know that dill seeds were so valuable in the Middle Ages that you could use them as a means of payment?
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds in a 1:1 ratio with dill seeds.
Cumin seeds, while not a direct substitute for fennel seeds, can be a worthwhile alternative to consider for certain dishes. They have an earthy, warm, and slightly bitter aroma, which is pretty different from the sweet, licorice-like flavor of fennel seeds.
But they can work well in curries, where they will marry with the other ingredients well. Cumin seeds are also delicious in pork dishes like pulled pork or a pork marinade (and in pork meatballs). You can also use them in sausages, just remember the result won’t be like the recipe intended!
Psst… this is a great option if you don’t like fennel, but want a similar strength spice.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds with half the amount of cumin seeds.
Cardamom, while not an exact match for fennel seeds, offers an aromatic and complex flavor profile that can be a delicious replacement for fennel seeds. It has a unique taste, combining elements of citrus, mint, and spice. Green cardamom, in particular, has a slightly sweet and floral flavor, making it suitable for both savory and sweet dishes like baked goods or aromatic rice dishes.
The seeds inside the cardamom pods are the most flavorful part, so consider using these either whole or ground for a more direct flavor injection.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds with half the amount of cardamom.
The defining feature of fennel seeds is the licorice flavor, so it makes total sense that you can use licorice root to get a similar flavor. As you might guess, licorice root has a very pure and intense licorice flavor, with none of the herbal undertones that fennel seeds have – a small amount goes a long way!
The reason licorice root is this low down the list is availability and convenience. It’s not that easy to find because it’s more of a specialized ingredient, and if you get the woody stem, you need to steep this in hot liquid to infuse the flavors into your dish. You can’t just add it directly like fennel seeds.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds with a quarter the amount of ground licorice root or an inch of stem steeped in the cooking liquid.
Omitting Fennel Seeds
In some recipes, you’ll be able to omit fennel seeds without making much difference to the final dish. If your recipe has a whole host of other spices then these will more than make up for the missing fennel.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds with nothing.
Fennel Bulb or Fronds
Using the fennel bulb or fronds can be a great way to incorporate a similar flavor profile to fennel seeds into your dish. While the bulb and fronds have a (much) milder anise-like flavor compared to the seeds, they can still contribute a similar aromatic quality and are good if you prefer a lighter, fresher flavor.
The fennel bulb can be thinly sliced or diced and added to salads, soups, or sautéed dishes. It’ll provide a crunchy texture and a sweet, herbaceous flavor. The fronds are feathery and delicate, so they work better as a garnish.
Psst… This option will only work for some situations and you might need to get creative. Fr example, I roasted some fennel bulbs along with my meatballs.
How to substitute: Replace fennel seeds with however much finely chopped fennel bulb your dish can handle!
Substitute to avoid
While I was researching fennel seed substitutes I came across lots of good suggestions, but also a few bad ones that didn’t work out. One suggestion I wouldn’t recommend is cloves.
Cloves taste like a mixture of pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg – there is nothing similar to fennel seeds there!
BEST Substitutes For Fennel Seeds + 1 To Avoid
- 1/2 portion Anise seeds
- 1/2 portion Star anise whole
- 1 portion Caraway seeds
- 1 portion Fresh tarragon
- 1 portion Dill seeds
- 1/2 portion Cumin seeds
- 1/2 portion Cardamom
- 1/4 portion Licorice root
- Fennel bulb
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen fennel seed substitutes at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.