Fennel seeds and cumin are two highly flavored spices with enough applications that every cook should make an effort to keep them on hand. While they do have a few things in common, it is important to recognize their differences if you are thinking about using one of them or about using one as an emergency replacement for the other. Below we look at the ways in which the flavors of these two spices are different as well as whether they can be used interchangeably.
What are the differences in flavor between fennel seed and cumin?
Fennel seeds come from the Foeniculum vulgare plant, while cumin seeds come from the Cuminum cyminum plant. Both belong to the Apiaceae family, which means that they are related; however, they are very different plants and their seeds have very different characteristics.
Since these are spices, flavor is the most important factor to consider and the flavors of fennel seeds and cumin are very different. Fennel seed is sweet with strong anise seed and licorice notes. This is similar to the flavor of caraway seeds as well. Cumin is equally aromatic and flavorful but offers earthy, smoky notes with a hint of bitterness. Cumin is what you taste primarily in curry powder and is usually the predominant flavoring in Mexican meat dishes.
While the seeds do share a similar shape, it is easy to distinguish between them. Fennel seeds have a greenish color, while cumin seeds are browner. In addition, fennel seeds are slightly larger than cumin seeds.
Can you use one as a substitute for the other?
Fennel seed is versatile enough to be used in both savory and sweet dishes. It can be used as a cumin substitute in the sense that its flavor will not be odd or out of place in a recipe that calls for cumin. In addition, it will usually work well with the other flavors that typically show up in recipes using cumin. Note that there are several spice blends that contain both spices. However, the dish will not taste the way that the recipe writer intended it to taste given fennel seeds’ sweetness and cumin’s bitterness.
Cumin’s use is mostly limited to savory preparations. Its earthiness and bitter notes keep it from working as a fennel seed substitute in desserts or in any popular dessert preparations, for that matter. While it should pair well with most of the spices in a savory recipe that requires fennel seed, it will change the flavor profile of the dish and provide none of the notes that fennel seed would bring. In other words, it would turn it into a completely different dish.
If you do not like the taste of either of these spices or have an allergy to one or the other, then you can feel free to replace them with the other. If you are looking for something that has a similar taste, there are much better alternatives for each.
When should you use fennel seed and when should you use cumin?
Use fennel seeds to make tea as well as for dry rubs to be used on pork. Fennel seed can also be used in breads, cakes and cookies. Use cumin to flavor meat for tacos, enchiladas, and most other Mexican dishes. It is also a key ingredient in many Indian dishes and is essential for homemade curry powder as well as for garam masala.