Cilantro: What It Is and How to Use It

An all-inclusive guide to this controversial herb.

Cilantro is, perhaps, the most divisive herb available; It seems people either love it or hate it. But no matter what camp you're in, its nuances have graced cuisines all over the world for centuries, landing it a permanent spot in kitchens everywhere.

What is Cilantro?

This green, vibrantly flavored, and flat leaf herb, sold by the bunch in the produce section of grocery stores is commonly mistaken for parsley. And this mistake isn't farfetched – cilantro is, in fact, a member of the parsley family and sometimes referred to as Mexican or Chinese parsley. It's essential to many cuisines around the world, including Mexican, Middle Eastern cuisines, Indian, and Asian.

cilantro on cutting board

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What Does Cilantro Taste Like?

When enjoyed fresh, cilantro is pungent, bright, and slightly tart, with peppery and lemony notes. Cilantro's flavor is greatly diminished when it's cooked or dried, retaining only a fraction of when it's fresh. It's also shown to be a good source of antioxidants and may have many additional health benefits.

Cilantro has a soap-like taste to a certain percentage of the population – about 4 to 14 percent. Within the leaves is a natural aldehyde chemical, the same chemical produced during soap-making and from some insects. Not everyone can detect these chemicals in the taste, but those that have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes can.

Cilantro vs. Coriander

Cilantro and coriander are two parts of the same plant called the coriander plant. Cilantro refers to the leaves, and the seeds and ground seeds resulting in a spice are called coriander seeds and coriander respectively. That is, here in North America. Internationally, coriander is the name of the leaves and stalks, and the dried seeds are simply called coriander seeds.

Despite coming from the same plant, the leaves and the seeds/ground spice have vastly different flavor profiles, nutrients, and uses. Coriander seeds have a lemon, citrus flavor when crushed and coriander spice is warm and nutty. Some recipes do refer to coriander as the seeds or the leaves, so read carefully!

Cilantro Substitutes

Because their taste profiles are so different, cilantro and coriander cannot be used interchangeably. If you can't find cilantro, the best substitute is culantro, an herb with a similar aroma and flavor. It has long, serrated serrated leaves and a lettuce-like appearance. And, unlike our friend cilantro, it doesn't go decrease during cooking. In a pinch, swap in parsley or a mixture of chopped herbs for fresh cilantro. For coriander, you can substitute cumin, garam masala, caraway, or even a bit of curry powder.

close up on three shrimp tacos with cilantro lime crema on a taco stand
Dotdash Meredith Food Studios

Get the recipe: Shrimp Tacos with Cilantro-Lime Crema

How to Use Cilantro

When purchasing, choose leaves that are green and aromatic and avoid those that are yellow and/or wilted – they're not as flavorful. The most important thing to do before using cilantro, though it seems obvious, is to wash it to ensure removal of dirt, etc. Then pick off the leaves, discard the stems, and chop to the desired size.

Cilantro is wonderful in recipes as well as on top of dishes as a garnish. It's often stirred into salsas, guacamoles, soups, sauces, chutneys, and dressings. Unlike parsley, the stems aren't typically used or chopped with the leaves, unless making a pesto or other sauce in a food processor.

How to Store and Freeze Cilantro

To extend the life of the herb, don't wash it until it's time to use it. Store cilantro in the fridge, with the stems in a glass of water. Covering the leaves with a plastic bag is also a good option for extending the life to cilantro.

To freeze cilantro, first blanch the herb in boiling water, pat it dry, and transfer the leaves to freezer-safe bags. Spread the leaves out thinly in the bag so they lay flat and enable a quick grab of what's needed .Another great way to store this herb is to blend it with olive oil in a blender and freeze the mixture in ice cube trays.

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