Arguably the most polarizing of herbs, cilantro is the leaf of the coriander plant and has recently seen increased popularity in the US. Cilantro is controversial because a minority percentage of people are unable to taste all of its flavor compounds and claim the herb tastes like soap or metal. Love it or hate it, here's all you need to know about the world's most widely consumed fresh herb.
Cilantro or coriander?
The term cilantro is common in the United States, but you may come across the term "fresh coriander". One in the same--the leaves of the coriander plant are referred to as cilantro. We refer to the seeds simply as coriander and they have a much different flavor (and as such cannot be substituted in recipes). Interestingly, cilantro is a member of the carrot family.
Cilantro has a fresh flavor with hints of citrus and is used to brighten up dishes. While potent fresh, the flavors of cilantro mellow considerably with heat.
Cilantro's flavor controversy
Some people maintain that cilantro has a very bad flavor--somewhat similar to soap. Cilantro hate has even spawned its own group--the venerable IHateCilantro.com. NPR dug into the topic and after using a gas chromatograph concluded that people who think that cilantro tastes like soap aren't able to detect the full taste and are missing the compounds that cilantro lovers identify with the plant.
Knowing that it could be an issue, we ask new dinner guests for opinions on cilantro before using it in an essential part of a meal.
Fresh cilantro looks somewhat similar to flat leaf or Italian parsley and is often placed next to it in grocery stores, so take an extra look when you're shopping. When in doubt cilantro has a pungent smell. Select bunches that are bright green, without any yellowing or wilting.
Cilantro should be available year round, but if your store does not have it we do not recommend substituting dried cilantro. It lacks most of the flavor associated with fresh cilantro and is not worth keeping in your pantry.
Like most fresh herbs, once clippings are cut off the plant the clock starts ticking. To maximize shelf life, clip the stem end of your cilantro and place it in a glass of water (as if they were flowers being placed in a vase). Cover the leaf end with a plastic bag and store in the fridge. Change the water if it becomes cloudy or off-colored. This should keep your cilantro fresh for up to two weeks.
Cilantro's culinary uses
Cilantro is especially popular in Latin American and Asian dishes. We use it in salsas, marinades, salads, as a seasoning for rice, tacos, lettuce wraps and even on a few sandwiches. Prep cilantro by discarding the stems and optionally running a knife through the remaining leaves. Cilantro is a strong flavor so be careful to taste as you go--you can always add more. Because cilantro's flavor degrades rapidly in heat, it's almost always used raw.