If I told you that cilantro is a recurring staple on my grocery list, would you nod in understanding, or would you make a face and proclaim that you’d rather wash your own mouth out with soap? Cilantro has a culinary history that goes back at least 8,000 years, but some people wish it would die a sudden death. And you would be in good company — Julia Child was not a fan.
I love cilantro for its bright, peppery, pungent, almost citrusy taste, but also because it’s so versatile, right at home in Mexican, Latin American, Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and North African dishes. But to some people, it simply tastes like soap. That’s because most of the cilantro taste and aroma is formed from natural compounds in the leaves called aldehydes, which are also produced during the making of soap. If you’re one of the small percentage of people with a genetic trait that allows them to detect the aldehyde, then you are not going to be a cilantro fan, you’re going to be a cilantrophobe.
I’m not going to say much about the nutritional attributes of cilantro, other than to say that it contains a variety of vitamins and minerals, like any plant food. Frankly, no one eats enough cilantro for it to really matter. But I will address some questions you might have about this controversial herb.
Cilantro vs. coriander. Both are parts of the same plant, Coriandrum sativum. “Cilantro” is the Spanish name for the leaves and stems, and that’s the term commonly used in North America. “Coriander” is used when referring to the dried seeds. If you grow cilantro in your garden — it’s an annual herb, and does well in full sun, or part shade once the daytime highs are consistently above 75 degrees — and let it go to seed, you’ve made coriander. Now save some of those seeds for next year’s crop.
Fresh vs. dried. Dried cilantro retains only a fraction of its fresh flavor. It also loses most of its flavor when cooked, so if you are using cilantro in a cooked dish, add it right at the end of cooking or sprinkle it on top before serving. It’s worth noting that when crushed — as when making pesto — enzymes in cilantro gradually transform the aldehydes so the herb no longer smells and tastes soapy.
Cilantro stems: Use or toss? Finely chop the stems and use them the same way you would the leaves, assuming that a crunchier texture isn’t an issue. Unlike parsley stems, cilantro stems don’t become bitter as you travel down the stem, but the flavor does intensify — good news if you’re a cilantro fan.
Flavor pairings. Cilantro goes well with cumin, garlic, ginger, mint, dill, chili peppers, coconut milk, yogurt, avocados and tomatoes. I use cilantro as a topper for anything Mexican, as well as for chiles, curries and in slaws.
Buying and storing. You can find fresh cilantro in your produce department, often right next to its near look-alike, flat-leaf parsley. Cilantro should be bright green, and the stems should be firm. The best way to store it is to place the bunch, stems down in a glass of water, covered with a plastic bag and put it upright in the refrigerator. Next best is to store the bunch in a produce bag in your vegetable crisper. Remove individual stems as needed, rinsing and patting dry just before using to remove any grit.