Anise vs. Fennel

by Chef Mark Tafoya

Ah licorice! That distinctively sharp and potent childhood favorite, whether in the form of Black Crows, braided ropes or tar babies, and their super potent and dangerous adult cousin absinthe, are made from an intriguing little seed called Anise. This strangely strong little seed reminds us of this month’s main ingredient, Fennel. In fact, many American supermarkets mislabel fennel as “anise”, perhaps because both have at their base the aromatic compound anethole (also found in chinese star anise).

We thought we’d include some recipes this month which use anise as well as fennel, so that you can taste for yourself the possibilities that these captivating licorice tastes elicit, but we know we need to explain the differences.

Foeniculum Vulgare is the vegetable that we know as fennel, or finocchio, as the Italians so poetically call it. The Anise seed, on the other hand, is known in scietific circles as Pimpinella Anisum. Both names remind us vaguely of shady doings, perhaps because they lend their flavors to that illicit drink notorious in the gaslit halls of 19th century Paris.

But Toulouse Lautrec and Alfred Jarry would be pleased to know that the dirty little seed is used for more than the production of the green elixir, and many sweet baked goods and candy treats are made with it. In New Mexico, Christmas cookies, or Biscochitos, are made using aniseed. The extracted oil aids in digestion and in treating flatulence.

Fennel seeds are sometimes confused with aniseed, which is very similar in taste and appearance, though smaller. As we said, both contain anethole, which according to Wikipedia, “is distinctly sweet as well as having its flavoring properties, and is measured to be 13 times sweeter than sugar. It is perceived as being pleasant to the taste even at higher concentrations.”