Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a hardy annual herb often seen in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Mexican, Latin American, Chinese, African, and Southeast Asian cooking.
It is a species in the Apiaceae family, which includes other popular herbs such as parsley, dill, asafoetida, caraway, and cumin. The Apiaceae family also includes many common vegetables, such as carrots, fennel, and celery.
In the United States and Canada, the fresh leaves and stems are called cilantro, while the seeds are called coriander. In most European countries, both the leaves and seeds are called coriander.
Despite its massive popularity, cilantro can be a polarizing herb because while most find it has a fresh, bright flavor, many people find it soapy. But don't worry; you will find some alternatives further down if you fall into the latter category.
Note: Due to their similar names and flavors, culantro (Eryngium foetidum) may sometimes be confused with cilantro. Culantro has longer, thinner, spiked leaves growing from a central stem rather than the bushy growth habit of cilantro. It can be used in similar culinary applications but has a stronger flavor. It also has more heat tolerance, so try it in your garden if you live in a warmer climate.
This post covers everything you need to know about cilantro, including different varieties, culinary uses, growing, storing, preserving, substitutions, and recipes.
Cilantro has been used for thousands of years. It is native to the Mediterranean, but it has spread worldwide. It grows natively very easily, although there are mentions of cilantro as early as ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, indicating that it was already being cultivated.
Cilantro is almost ubiquitous in its culinary uses but is often used fresh as a garnish as it does not withstand the heat of cooking. One of the most popular uses is in various sauces such as salsa, chutney, chimichurri, and guacamole. Another widespread use is to add a pop of freshness on top of decadent dishes such as curries, stews, and rice bowls. On the lighter side, salad and salad dressings also commonly feature cilantro. You will also rarely find a taco without it.
Coriander seeds have a slightly different flavor profile, not as fresh, with an additional nutty, peppery flavor, which lends to different applications than the leaves. The seeds are often used in marinades, spice rubs, and pickling.
One important thing to keep in mind when choosing a variety of cilantro to grow is its bolt resistance. Cilantro tends to bolt or flower and go to seed very quickly, so many varieties are bred to be slower to bolt, allowing you more time to get a good harvest.
- Santo Cilantro: A fast-growing, relatively slow-bolting variety with a good harvest window. It has the classic cilantro flavor and is popular with home gardeners.
- Cruiser cilantro: This variety has compact plants with larger, more delicate leaves and sturdy stems. It also has excellent bolt resistance.
- Calypso Cilantro: This variety is also slow-bolting and tends to be more heat-tolerant, making it suitable for regions with warmer climates.
- Delfino Cilantro: If you want something different, Delfino cilantro has more delicate, feathery leaves and a milder flavor than many standard cilantro varieties.
Cilantro is used in some cultures for medicinal purposes. It can also used in aromatherapy.
High-level Nutritional Information
Cilantro is a good source of antioxidants and is also a source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese. Please consult a licensed dietician or nutritional specialist for specific nutritional information or dietary advice.
How to Grow
Cilantro is an annual and is most easily grown in the spring and fall. It bolts quickly in higher temperatures, making it challenging to grow in the summer and warmer climates.
Cilantro prefers to be direct sown, and you can do so once the threat of frost has passed. Plant according to package directions in full sun in rich, well-draining soil. Keep the ground consistently moist during germination and water regularly once established. Cilantro grows well in ground, raised beds, and containers.
Succession plant: Sow seeds every two weeks or so to harvest cilantro for as long as possible.
Continuous harvesting will also promote new growth for consistent harvests—harvest by clipping the outer stems about an inch from the ground. Only take about ⅓ of the plant at a time to allow the plant to keep growing.
Once the plant flowers, the flavor of the leaves will not be ideal, but leave the flowers for the bees and harvest the seeds. The easiest way is to cut the stems once they turn brown, place the flower heads inside a paper bag, and tie it closed. Hang the bunch upside down, and the seeds will fall into the bag when dried.
Companion plant: Cilantro is a helpful companion plant as it can attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, hoverflies, parasitoid wasps, and lacewings. Consider planting cilantro interspersed with other plants in your garden.
Favorite Varieties to Grow and Use
You can not go wrong with any variety you choose, as there is no significant difference in flavor, although growing a slow-bolting variety will be easier. Many are marked this way, or any of the abovementioned varieties (Santo, Cruiser, Calypso, or Delfino) are excellent choices.
If you need to substitute cilantro when cooking (or are cooking for someone who thinks cilantro tastes like soap), many other herbs can work as alternatives:
- Flat-leaf Parsley: The most common substitute, Flat-leaf parsley also has a mild fresh flavor and adds brightness, although it lacks the more citrusy notes, including a bit of lime juice, makes the taste a closer match.
- Basil: Adds a sharp, fresh flavor that works well if substituted as a garnish or in salads.
- Dill: Dill has a different flavor but can work as a substitute, mainly for a fresh element. Be mindful of how much you add; it will change the taste of your dish.
- Tarragon: Tarragon has a slightly sweet and anise-like flavor, making it a potential substitute for cilantro in certain dishes.
- Mint: Mint leaves can provide a fresh and aromatic component but will flavor your dish differently.
- Culantro: While culantro is more potent with additional pungent notes, it can substitute for cilantro in certain Latin American and Caribbean dishes.
- Green Onions (Scallions): Although they taste different, with a mild onion flavor, they can work well in sauces, salads, or as a garnish.
- Cumin: While not the same, cumin adds an earthy, nutty flavor.
How to Store
Cilantro leaves are delicate, and it is best to harvest cilantro and use it as needed; however, you can store them in the fridge. Put the stems in a cup of water and cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag. Change out the water as needed. Alternatively, you can wrap it in a paper towel and place it in a plastic bag. If you do this with cilantro from the store, it is best to remove the band holding it together first.
How to Preserve Cilantro
Cilantro is best used fresh; if you choose to preserve it, it is best used in cooked dishes.
- Freezing: Preserves the best flavor. Pick the leaves, wash, spin dry in a salad spinner, chop (or not), put in a freezer-safe container, and freeze. You can flash freeze on a sheet tray for best results and then transfer to a container. Some people like to mix it with olive oil, which can be delicious but unnecessary. The leaves will be wilted and discolored when you use it, so this is best when used in cooked dishes or warm sauces.
- Drying: Does not retain as much flavor as freezing, but you can hang it to dry or use a dehydrator. Check out my blog post on drying herbs.
Sauce: You can freeze a batch of sauce, such as cilantro chimichurri, salsa verde, green goddess dressing, or pesto. Bring to room temperature before using. Bear in mind that the texture will not be identical to fresh. Especially if the sauce you freeze has oil, it can help to blend it briefly once thawed to help re-emulsify. If you usually only need a small amount at once, freeze in ice cube trays.
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