Fennel pollen and fennel seed are products of the same plant. The fennel plant is one of a handful of plants that produce both an herb and a spice. The fennel plant is even more unique since it produces an herb and two spices. Both of the fennel spices provide the same licorice flavor that you get from the herb. That said, they are different parts of the plant with different properties. You cannot use them interchangeably. Let’s take a look at how fennel pollen compares to fennel seed in this SPICEography Showdown.
How does fennel pollen differ from fennel seed?
Fennel pollen consists of the tiny flowers of the fennel plant. Fennel seeds are exactly what they would seem to be: the fennel plant’s seeds, which are its fertilized ovules. Fennel pollen’s flavor is rich and intense, far more so than the flavor of fennel seeds. Up until the 1990s, fennel pollen usage was confined to the western coast of Italy; it was not well known outside of Liguria and Tuscany. In comparison, fennel seeds have been a popular spice all over the world for centuries.
Fennel pollen is one of the world’s most expensive spices because of how much work it takes to harvest it. You need to get pollen from many flowers to get a usable amount of pollen. The labor-intensive nature of gathering fennel pollen makes it more similar to premium spices like saffron and vanilla than to fennel seeds. Fennel seeds are easier to harvest, which means that they can be sold at a lower price.
Availability is another area where these two spices differ. Fennel pollen is very much a gourmet spice. It is used primarily in high-end kitchens by serious cooks. As such, it is a specialty ingredient that is not really the kind of thing that you will find in the average grocery store. Fennel seed is far easier to find and more familiar to cooks. There are more recipes that use fennel seed, which means that you will be in less danger of misusing it.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Both fennel pollen and fennel seed share the distinctive fennel flavor and you can use them in many (if not all) of the same applications. The difference lies in how much of these spices you use. Fennel pollen is a far more concentrated source of flavor than fennel seed, which means that you need to use less of it. It is easy to go overboard with this spice and wind up with a dish where all you can taste is fennel pollen’s licorice flavor.
If you want to use fennel seed in place of fennel pollen, you should purchase whole seeds and grind them yourself. To maximize their flavor, you may want to toast the seeds lightly before grinding them. Sift the ground fennel to get the finest powder possible; this will be the closest possible approximation of fennel pollen.
When should you use fennel pollen and when should you use fennel seeds?
Because of its cost, you may want to reserve fennel pollen for expensive dishes and premium ingredients. Use fennel seed when preparing relatively inexpensive ingredients. If you are making Italian sausage or meatballs, fennel seed is what you should use if you want the traditional flavor profile.