I've seen fennel stump more than one home cook, with its wide bulb and the celery-like branches radiating off it. I get it, it's weird-looking...where do you start? Honestly, it's easy. Plus, fennel is a treasure trove of goodies: There's the crisp-tender bulb, the aromatic stalks, and the herb-like fronds. Here's how to slice it, dice it, or do whatever else you want with it. Just don't get too freaky, okay?
Trimming and Cleaning
The first step is to cut off the stalks where they meet the top of the bulb. Don't just throw them out, though: The stalks can be used to flavor stocks, especially fish stock (a.k.a. fumet), and soups. And the fronds should be treated like delicate, anise-scented herbs that can be minced and tossed into a salad or sauce, or used as a garnish. They're a heck of a lot prettier than parsley leaves.
Most fennel bulbs look a bit bruised, dirty, and dinged on their surface. A lot of cookbooks and cooking guides say to pull off that outer layer and discard it. I find this wasteful; instead, just peel it. You'll get rid of the undesirable exterior, but save a significant portion of edible fennel in the process.
Once it's peeled, trim off the root end of the bulb.
You now have a cleaned, trimmed fennel bulb that can be halved or quartered for roasting, sliced for salads, or diced for sautéing.
The main thing you want to decide when slicing fennel is whether to do it with the core in or out. Fennel is built a lot like an onion, with multiple layers held together by a core. In an onion, that core is very small, while in fennel, it's quite a bit larger and extends farther up from the root into the center of the bulb.
In the case of fennel, the core is entirely edible, if a tiny bit firmer than the rest of the bulb. This means you can either leave it in or cut it out. Leaving it in will produce slices that each contain multiple layers of fennel, all held together by the core. If you take the core out, you'll get very thin individual strips.
When it's cored, you can choose between two ways of slicing the fennel: pole to pole (with the knife parallel to the line running from the root end to the stalk end), which produces straighter slices; or orbitally (with the knife perpendicular to the pole-to-pole line), which produces more rounded slices. The photos here show the straighter, pole-to-pole option.
Slicing Fennel With the Core Attached
Begin by slicing the fennel bulb in half through the middle, cutting parallel to the bulb's wider dimension.
Lay each half on the flat cut side, and slice lengthwise to your desired thickness. As you can see, you end up with slices that each include the bulb's layers, held together by the core. You can eat them raw, roast them, or sear them in a skillet; grilling is a good choice for this type of cut, too, since the size of the slices makes them less likely to fall through the grate into the coals below.
Slicing Fennel Without the Core
To make thinner sliced strips, you'll want to remove the core first. To do that, start by quartering the bulb through the middle. Each quarter will have a quarter of the core attached to it. Hold your knife at a 45-degree angle relative to the cutting board, and slice the core out.
Now cut each cored fennel quarter into lengthwise slices, to your desired thickness. You'll end up with individual strips of sliced fennel. This kind of cut is great in salads, for instance, or, if sliced thickly, as part of a crudité platter.
Dicing fennel is much like dicing an onion. Starting with your peeled bulb, once again cut it in half through the middle, parallel to the bulb's wider dimension.
Set each half flat on a cutting board, and slice down through the bulb in a series of vertical cuts, being careful not to cut all the way through the root end, so that the layers remain connected.
Then make a series of horizontal cuts in the bulb. Finally, dice the fennel by making a series of vertical cuts perpendicular to the first set of vertical cuts, using the knuckles of your non-knife hand as a guide for the blade.
How far apart you space the vertical and horizontal cuts will determine the final dice size.
And that's it. Let no unruly bulb of fennel be a source of intimidation ever again. You can find more fennel coverage and recipes here.