When cooking it is important to know and understand what each of your ingredients are adding to a dish. Sometimes it is tempting to interchange ingredients, especially if they look similar like fennel seeds and cumin seeds.
The differences between fennel seeds and cumin seeds do not just go as far as their plant genus, but it is also more noteworthy how we use them in cooking and their taste profile. Fennel can be sweet and used in deserts whereas cumin is bitter and would not make a suitable substitute for fennel.
- Both fennel seeds and cumin seeds are well used ingredients in Indian cuisine. Fennel seeds are known as saunf in Hindi and cumin seeds are known as jeera.
- Fennel seeds hold that ability to be used in sweet or savory dishes. With an anise or licorice flavor and aroma. Cumin seeds are bitter with an earthiness and almost musky aroma.
- Both fennel seeds and cumin seeds offer depth of flavor when toasted whole, or used as ground spice.
- Fennel and Cumin are both in the Apiaceae family but fennel (foeniculum Vulgare) and Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) are different plants with different growing conditions required.
- Fennel seeds are slightly larger and have a green hue, whereas Cumin seeds are more brown and slightly more compact.
- You can use all parts of the fennel plant for culinary and medicinal uses. Cumin has edible seeds alone.
- Fennel seeds, crushed and steeped in boiled water make a herbal tea suitable to aid with aspects of IBS and those suffering the symptoms have reported less bloating. Cumin seeds crushed will make a herbal tea suitable for many ailments due to the high level of antioxidants present.
- Fennel seeds are used in many deserts and sweet dishes, whereas cumin seeds would add an interesting, if not unwelcome note to sweeter dishes. Fennel is often paired with pork dishes, egg dishes and chicken. Cumin goes well with rice or bean dishes as well as a basis for many Indian dishes.
So this is the weird bit. While fennel seeds would make an acceptable substitute for cumin seeds, cumin would not work the other way around. This is because fennel is often used to lighten a dish, whereas cumin is the heavy, serious flavor leading from the front.
Let’s look at options for better fennel and cumin seed substitutes then! Replacements are not always straight forward though!
How To Substitute Fennel Seeds In Recipes
The taste profile we are looking for is fresh licorice with strong anise, but in a sort of grown up way. Not too sweet or overpowering just a mature aroma with great zing on the flavor side.
- Anise seeds – By far the best option in your spice rack. Anise and fennel seeds can be substituted exactly quantity for quantity. This is because they share a similar taste profile and neither are too strong. Anise seeds are a little smaller though.
- Star Anise – use this for dishes that you can remove them from stews, soups and casseroles for example. Use in a sachet d’epices if you are unsure of your hunting skills before serving. A good substitute in deserts and custards that call for a sweet licorice flavor.
- Caraway Seeds – These are a good second place. They do not have the ability to be substituted into sweet dishes although they share a lot of the licorice flavor, it is just much more earthy and musky.
- Dill Seeds – I will admit they share some of the taste profile or caraway seeds or fennel seeds they just don’t quite hit the spot. Use in a ratio of 2:3 so for every two teaspoons of fennel seeds in a recipe replace with 3 teaspoons of dill seeds.
- Fresh Dill Leaves – they would work only if used differently. So when a dish calls for spices as seeds, you are usually toasting them first to release the essential oils and flavonoids. With fresh herbs that are tender leaf like dill, you will add it towards the end of cooking, or chopped as a garnish. So if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds you will need to add around 2 tablespoons of freshly chopped dill leaves to garnish.
- Licorice Root – Go carefully here. Licorice root is powerful stuff and I would recommend cutting quantities in half when using this potent root. You will need to process it before you can use it and add in a similar way to ground fennel.
- Ground Fennel – Often the simplest option is the best and ground fennel provides a lot of the same flavors. If stored correctly it will not lose it’s intensity either. Ground fennel should last in an airtight container for around 2 years, this is until the flavor starts to lack a certain something, but it has not ‘gone off’.
- Cumin Seeds– Not an ideal substitute at all but it will lend the dish a certain something. In no way does this constitute a perfect substitute and you will lose that sweetness. Very much not appropriate for sweet dishes! You will get an earthy flavor instead of an anise flavor that sorts of picks out the other spices more.
Look to your recipe to see how you are to cook your fennel seeds, then make the educated decision as to how to substitute and replace it.
Substitutes For Cumin Seeds
Cumin is a main ingredient of many Indian dishes and is found in garam Masala.
- Paprika offers the smokiness that cumin seeds have. Cook with it in a slightly different way as you would add this towards the end of cooking. Paprika on it’s own would not give you the depth of earthiness that cumin seeds offer though, so think about combining with a few different substitutes.
- Garam Masala is made up of cumin seeds and other spices and it’s translation from Hindi means basically ‘hot mix of spices’. So this gives us some freedom. Garam Masala is made from cinnamon, mace, cardamom pods, peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds. So we can see there would be a few other contrasting flavors mixed in the with hot, earthy citrus notes of cumin. Great when added to Indian cuisine and this can be a save all for bland rice and bean dishes the world over.
- Curry Powder tends to have a mix of spices added to it. This is traditionally a mix of turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, pepper and chili powder. So we are getting those flavor combinations hitting us from all angles now. The turmeric lends a note of earthiness as well as the vibrant golden color.
- Caraway Seeds are a great replacement for cumin seeds as you can toast them and release the flavor. Caraway is very much a poor man’s version of cumin though. The same flavor, but lacking in intensity. Not that it matters if you have run out of cumin, then just replace one teaspoon for one teaspoon and taste. If you are needing a bit more oomph, try one of the other substitutes towards the end of the cooking process.
- Coriander ground or as seeds. If you are using coriander seeds replace it one teaspoon for one teaspoon. I would advise to add this replacement for cumin to others to allow for the heat and depth of earthiness to come through.
- Ground Cumin sounds like a cheat substitute for cumin seeds, but you will find it tucked in the back of your spice cupboard and be glad. Just remember that you are not using this when toasting your seeds. So you miss out on those wonderful flavors when frying off onions with the seeds, but you will get the flavor when added towards the end of your cooking.
- Chili Powder is the ultimate compromise as it tends to include paprika, cumin seeds, garlic and even onion powder. So this can be a saver if you are really pushed. It is nice to keep the ingredients separate and then combine as and when needed but this can be a time saver.
- Fennel Seeds will offer you a sweet licorice alternative to cumin. Depending on the recipe this may work. It is not a replacement for cumin at all, just a way to save a flavor filled dish from becoming bland. You will not be replicating tastes here though!
Use your experience as a cook to work out the best replacement for each dish and work from there. In theory there is no such thing as a mistake in cooking, just an opportunity to adjust your taste buds!
What Next & Further Reading
- Growing The Herb Fennel In The UK
- How To Grow Cumin Cuminum Cyminum From Seed
- Growing Cardamom In The UK
- Spices And Herbs What Are The Important Differences
- Fenugreek Seed And Fennel Seed – Differences and Replacements
- The Science of Spice: Understand Flavour Connections and Revolutionize your Cooking by Dr Stuart Farrimond
- Grow Your Own Curry Spices In The UK
- Curry Leaves & Bay Leaves Important Differences & Uses
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