Fennel for Pickling

fennelBeginning to bolt just after my coriander is a fellow umbellifer, Florence fennel, which grocers often label as finocchio (Italian for “fennel”) or anise. Florence fennel is not anise; nor is it the fennel that grows wild over much of California, perfuming the air after fires and providing children with “Indian bubble gum,” the Styrofoam-like flesh of the dry tall stems. That fennel reached America from Iberia, where its delicate foliage feeds swarms of colorful little snails who later get eaten by the bowlful in Lisbon bars. Fennel of the wild sort produces the best-tasting seeds, but only Florence fennel—a smaller, tamer, garden variety—can be eaten as a vegetable. This fennel swells at the base of the stems into a plump, white, layered bulb that you can use much like celery.*

Don’t wait too long, though. If you do, the outer layers of the bulb will grow tough and stringy, and the core will grow thick and long, though it will still be edible (it is very good candied). Fennel bulbs past their prime are best used cooked rather than raw.

Kyocera mandolineBecause much of the anise-like flavor is lost with cooking, I usually prefer to use my Florence fennel raw, but even young fennel bulbs can be a little tough for some tastes. So for salads and pickles I generally slice the bulbs very fine, using a mandoline. This would be too much trouble with my big stainless-steel mandoline, which takes me at least five minutes just to set up. But my plastic little Kyocera mandoline is perfect for the job. The secret is the ever-sharp ceramic blade. I also like the simple mechanism on the back side for adjusting the thickness of the slice.

I used the Kyocera mandolin recently to make—

fennel picklePickled Fennel with Orange

¾ pound Florence fennel bulbs (about two small ones), with a few inches of the stems, sliced very thin
1 teaspoon pickling salt
Zest of ½ orange, in thin strips
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 orange (about 6 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon sugar
4 black peppercorns, cracked with a smack from a knife blade held horizontally

In a bowl, toss the fennel slices with the salt. Let them stand for an hour.

Drain the liquid from the fennel, and toss the slices with the orange zest. Pack this mixture into a pint jar.

In a saucepan, heat the vinegar, orange juice, sugar, and pepper, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the hot liquid over the fennel. Cap the jar, let it cool, and store it in the refrigerator.

The pickle will be ready to eat in a day or two. Serve it on top of mixed raw greens or on its own as a salad, sprinkled with a bit of minced fennel frond.

The best source I’ve found of additional ideas for using Florence fennel is Elizabeth Schneider’s Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide. Having grown up in Greenwich Village eating fennel from Little Italy, Elizabeth uses Florence fennel with abandon–baked, fried, braised, stir-fried, and puréed, in soups and salads and pasta sauces, and even baked whole and stuffed into chicken.


*Celery is yet another cousin in the big, marvelously aromatic family Umbelliferae, so-named for their umbrella-like flower clusters.

9 thoughts on “Fennel for Pickling”

  1. I am planning on throwing wild fennel around the dry perimeters of our property as bee fodder (along with Queen Anne’s Lace) but haven’t ever tried growing the larger rooted cultivated fennel. I like the flavour of aniseed but only as a sweet flavour and don’t like it used in savoury applications but your recipe for candied fennel has just been tucked away and might just get me growing some this year 🙂 Cheers for sharing. As usual, your post is wonderfully informative and very detailed 🙂 You make garden blogging fun 🙂

    1. Thank you!

      The flavor of bulbing fennel is quite mild, especially when it’s cooked. I’ve just made a big pot of puréed fennel soup, with nothing but fennel bulb, onion, potato, garlic, lamb stock, salt, sour cream, and a little butter for sautéing the vegetables. This soup is worth a try, I promise.

  2. Hi Linda,
    I have been trying for several years to grow bulbing fennel but the bulbs, no matter which variety, are never big, fat, rounded bulbs like I see in the produce section, just slightly plump and elongated. Any tips? I love to eat it year ’round. I have a couple plants leftover from a late fall planting that I am letting go to seed and will see what comes of it.
    Also, in regards to your post about coriander/cilantro, I too just let a few plants go to seed then sprinkle the seeds around the garden so they come up as they want; this has been much more successful than trying to grow in rows. This year I will try to save some seed for culinary use following your suggestions.

    1. Gretchen, it sounds like your fennel is bolting early. This could be because the weather has been hot; the plants grow best in spring or fall, not in the heat of summer. Transplanting rather than direct-seeding could cause early bolting, too. Some gardeners say they have great success transplanting Florence fennel, but they do it when the plants are tiny. A third possibility is that your seeds aren’t the best variety. I think I’ve used Perfection, from Nichols.

      1. HI Linda,
        I usually shoot for a fall/winter crop so bolting would not be a problem. I also direct seed and going back to 2008 have planted Zefa Fino, Perfection, Orion, Victorio, Monte Bianco, and Mantovano (the last 2 are from Franchi seeds). Last year I tried heeling the soil up around them but to little avail. So I am stumped but not yet defeated!

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