Fennel Can And Will Change Your Jarred Tomato Sauce Forever

Move over peanut butter and jelly — there's a new favorite pantry pair in town. A spoonful of fennel seeds is a quick move to add complexity to even the most ho-hum jarred tomato sauce. Like the rest of the fennel plant, the seeds have a mild, licorice-like flavor capable of adding depth and cutting through oil.

Not to be confused with the fresh fennel bulbs in the produce aisle, dried seeds are widely available, and a jar of the spice usually costs less than $5. The small green pods look similar to cumin and caraway, and their flavor is often compared to anise.

A time-tested dish-enhancer, fennel has been featured in cuisines dating back to ancient Egypt, Rome, India, and China. Today, the small but mighty ingredient continues to make appearances in dishes around the world, elevating everything from sausage and fish to spice blends and cookies. But the aromatic spice truly shines when paired with bright tomatoes, bringing out new levels of flavor in otherwise stodgy jarred tomato sauce.

How much fennel to add

There are many ways to use fennel, but sprinkling it into tomato sauce is one of the easiest. To really experiment, start by adding a tablespoon of toasted and ground seeds to the jarred sauce as it simmers on the stove. Though not required, heating the spice brings out its flavor, as does crushing the pods to release its oils. Do so by placing the fennel seeds in a dry pan and warming them over medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant. Be sure to stir to avoid burning.

The whole kernels, though chewy, will soften when they stew in the tomatoes, but you can go the extra mile by blending them in a spice grinder or simply chopping them with a knife. This step ensures a punch of flavor and a smooth sauce. A coffee grinder can also cut through the hulls, but be sure to clean the machine before and after to avoid adding an unwanted taste.

If you choose to forgo toasting or crushing the seeds, allow the fennel and tomato sauce to heat together, so the flavor can fully infuse. Otherwise, stir in the ground seasoning before serving, so it doesn't lose its potency.

Add even more flavor to jarred sauce

Jarred sauce is one of the best shortcuts for home cooks eager to get dinner on the table. It's also a blank canvas. And since the sophisticated fennel-tomato pairing plays well with others, there's plenty of room for continued experimentation. Feel free to add protein or vegetables to fill out the meal or consider returning to the pantry for more additions. Some of the best umami boosters for store-bought tomato sauce include other seasonings like smoked paprika and shelf-stable ingredients like black olives.

But don't put away the fennel yet. Tomato and fennel make for a savory combination that's especially useful in vegetarian dishes. For example, you can use both seeds and bulbs in a braised fennel wedges with saffron and tomato recipe. And a teaspoon of the pods can enhance the tomatoes (or canned sauce) in vegetable chili. This spice's subtle flavor is an invitation to get creative, and many recipes benefit from a sprinkle or two.