It all comes down to where you live. Cilantro and coriander come from the same plant, Coriandrum sativum. The terms “cilantro” and “coriander” are often used interchangeably in many parts of the world, but in the United States, we typically refer to different parts of the plant. Interestingly, it is related to carrots and parsley.
Cilantro is the term used in the U.S. to refer to the fresh, leafy part of the Coriandrum sativum plant. The leaves have a strong, distinct flavor that people often describe as either refreshing and citrusy or soapy, depending on individual genetic traits. Cilantro is commonly used in a variety of cuisines, including Mexican, Indian, and Thai.
Coriander, on the other hand, typically refers to the seeds of the same plant in the U.S. The seeds have a different flavor profile compared to cilantro; they are slightly sweet with a warm, nutty, spicy flavor. Coriander seeds are often used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cuisines, and they are a common ingredient in spice blends like garam masala and curry powder.
In many other parts of the world, including the UK, “coriander” is the term used to refer to the leaves and stalks of the plant, while “coriander seeds” refer to the seeds.
So, to summarize: “cilantro” and “coriander” in the U.S. refer to different parts of the same plant, and the choice of term can significantly impact the flavor of your dish. Despite this difference, they are botanically related as they come from the same plant.
Is It Easy To Grow Cilantro?
Growing cilantro isn’t too difficult, but there are a few tips that can help you get the most out of your plants:
1. Planting Time:
Cilantro grows best in cool weather. In hotter climates, it can quickly bolt (i.e., it will go to seed), which will cause the flavor of the leaves to change and become more bitter. To mitigate this, you can start planting cilantro in the early spring or in the fall.
2. Soil and Sun:
Cilantro likes full sun to light shade and well-drained soil. It prefers a soil pH between 6.2 and 6.8.
Cilantro needs a lot of moisture. Water the plants regularly, but be careful not to overwater. They don’t like to sit in overly wet soil.
4. Plant Spacing:
When sowing, you can scatter the seeds and cover them with about a quarter inch of soil. Once the plants are about 2 to 3 inches tall, thin them out to 6 to 8 inches apart to allow them to grow bushier.
5. Slow-Bolting Varieties:
If you live in an area with hot summers, consider growing slow-bolting varieties. These are bred to take longer to bolt, giving you a longer harvest period for the leaves. However, even slow-bolting cilantro will eventually bolt in high heat.
6. Succession Planting:
Because cilantro bolts, it’s a good idea to make successive sowings every 2 to 3 weeks during the growing season. This will give you a continuous harvest.
7. Pests and Diseases:
Cilantro can be susceptible to a few pests, like aphids and whiteflies, as well as diseases like leaf spot. If you notice any signs of these, treat them early.
Saving Coriander Seeds:
If you let your cilantro plants bolt and then allow the flowers to mature and dry, they will produce coriander seeds. Here’s how you can harvest them:
- Wait until the flowers turn brown and the seeds look brown and dried.
- Cut the entire flower head off the plant and place it in a brown paper bag.
- Let the seeds dry in the bag for a few days. Once they’re dry, shake the bag to release the seeds from the husks.
- Store the seeds in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
Remember that you can use some of the seeds in cooking, but if you want to continue growing cilantro, save some seeds to plant in the next season.
Why Do Some People Dislike Cilantro?
The love-or-hate relationship people have with cilantro, where it tastes either fresh and citrusy or like soap, is actually tied to genetics. It sounds a bit sci-fi, but it’s true!
A study conducted in partnership with the genetics company 23andMe found that specific variations in smell and taste receptor genes affect how a person perceives the taste of cilantro. The variations make some people especially sensitive to certain compounds in cilantro known as aldehydes, which can give the herb an overwhelming and, to some, unpleasant taste.
For those with these specific gene variations, cilantro can come across as too pungent or soapy, which naturally leads to an aversion. It’s a fascinating example of how our genes can influence our everyday preferences.
Interestingly, culture and exposure also play a part. People in regions where cilantro is frequently used in cooking are more likely to enjoy its taste. This suggests that repeated exposure to cilantro can override the genetic predisposition over time.
Ways to use the Cilantro Leaves
Cilantro is a versatile herb that’s used in a variety of cuisines around the world. Here are some popular dishes where the cilantro leaf is a key ingredient:
- Guacamole (Mexico): This avocado-based dip wouldn’t be complete without a generous helping of fresh cilantro.
- Pico de Gallo (Mexico): A type of salsa fresca, this dish combines chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cilantro.
- Cilantro Lime Rice (Latin America): This dish features rice cooked with lime juice and a mix of cilantro, giving it a refreshing and tangy flavor.
- Pho (Vietnam): A popular noodle soup where cilantro is often added as a garnish, contributing a burst of freshness.
- Green Curry (Thailand): A spicy, sweet, and savory curry often topped with fresh cilantro leaves.
- Chimichurri (Argentina): A tangy sauce made with chopped parsley, cilantro, garlic, vinegar, and oil. It’s often used as a marinade or a sauce for grilled meat.
- Tacos (Mexico): Many traditional tacos are garnished with fresh cilantro.
- Indian Chutneys: Cilantro is often used in a variety of chutneys, which are flavorful, often spicy, condiments used in Indian cuisine.
- Tabbouleh (Middle East): Though traditionally made with parsley, many variations of this refreshing salad also include cilantro.
Remember, if you’re cooking for someone who might not enjoy the taste of cilantro, it’s a good idea to ask their preference or consider using parsley as a substitute.
Ways to use the Cilantro Seeds, aka Coriander
Coriander seeds, which come from the cilantro plant, have a warm, spicy, citrusy flavor that’s quite different from the leaves. Here are some ways you can use coriander seeds in your cooking:
- Spice Blends: Coriander is often used in spice blends, like curry powders, garam masala (Indian cuisine), ras el hanout (North African cuisine), and others.
- Pickling: Coriander seeds are a common addition to pickling brines, adding a warm, spicy flavor to pickled vegetables.
- Roasting: Coriander seeds can be roasted and ground before using, which enhances their flavor. The ground spice can be used in a variety of dishes, including soups, stews, and marinades.
- Baking: In some regions, like the Middle East and the Mediterranean, coriander seeds are used in baking. They can add a complex flavor to breads, cakes, and other pastries.
- Brewing: Coriander seeds are used in the brewing of certain types of beer, like Belgian witbier.
- Rubs and Marinades: Ground coriander is often used in rubs and marinades for meat, poultry, and fish. It pairs especially well with cumin.
- Soups and Stews: Coriander seeds can add depth to the flavors of soups and stews. They’re often used in Indian dals and lentil soups.
Remember, coriander seeds are usually best when fresh. To check their freshness, you can lightly crush a seed. If it’s still fragrant, it’s good to use. If not, it might be time to replace your stash.
Substitutes for Cilantro Leaves in Cooking
There are several herbs and greens you can use as a substitute for cilantro, depending on the dish you’re making. Here are a few:
- Parsley: Flat-leaf or Italian parsley is often used as a cilantro substitute, especially as a garnish. It has a fresh, mild flavor that can mimic the brightness of cilantro.
- Thai Basil: With its strong, anise-like flavor, Thai basil can replace cilantro in Southeast Asian dishes.
- Mint: In some dishes, especially those from the Middle East, mint can be a good substitute.
- Chervil: This delicate herb has a mild flavor that’s somewhat of a cross between parsley and tarragon. It can work as a substitute in some dishes.
- Oregano: It has a stronger flavor but can work as a cilantro substitute in Mexican dishes.
- Culantro: Not to be confused with cilantro, culantro is a completely different herb that’s popular in Caribbean and Asian cooking. It has a similar flavor to cilantro but is much stronger.
- Carrot Greens: If you’re in a pinch and have some carrot tops to spare, their herbal, slightly bitter flavor can stand in for cilantro.
Remember, the best substitute will depend on the dish you’re making and the other flavors in it. These substitutes may not perfectly mimic the flavor of cilantro, but they can provide a similar fresh, green element to your dishes.
The Cilantro Plant Family
Cilantro, scientifically known as Coriandrum sativum, belongs to the Apiaceae family, also known as the carrot or parsley family. The family includes several other important culinary herbs and vegetables, such as:
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): Parsley is a widely used culinary herb. There are two main types, flat-leaf and curly-leaf parsley, and they’re used in cuisines all around the world.
- Carrot (Daucus carota): Carrots are root vegetables that are eaten both raw and cooked. They’re known for their high content of beta-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A.
- Celery (Apium graveolens): Celery is often used in soups and salads. Both the stalks and the leaves of the plant are edible.
- Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): Fennel is a flavorful herb with a taste similar to anise. All parts of the plant, including the bulb, stalk, leaves, and seeds, are edible.
- Dill (Anethum graveolens): Dill is an aromatic herb with delicate, feathery green leaves. It’s often used in pickling and in dishes like salads, soups, and fish dishes.
- Anise (Pimpinella anisum): Anise is known for its flavor, which resembles that of licorice, fennel, or tarragon. Its seeds are used as a spice, either ground or whole.
- Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota): Also known as wild carrot, it’s the wild ancestor of the cultivated carrot.
- Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa): Parsnips are root vegetables that resemble carrots but are usually paler and have a sweeter, nuttier flavor.
All of these plants share some characteristics, such as umbrella-shaped flower clusters known as umbels, and they often have aromatic qualities, making them important in both the culinary and the botanical world.
Are Cilantro and Cumin Related?
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) and cumin (Cuminum cyminum) are not closely related botanically, but they are both part of the broader Apiaceae family. This is a large family of plants that also includes carrots, parsley, and celery, among many others.
While they both belong to the same family, cilantro and cumin are used differently in cooking. Cilantro is known for its distinctive fresh, citrusy leaves (and the seeds are known as coriander in many places). On the other hand, cumin is typically used in its seed form and has a warm, earthy flavor. Ground cumin is a key ingredient in many spice blends, including curry powder and chili powder.
Despite their differences, cilantro and cumin are frequently used together in a variety of cuisines, particularly in Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern dishes, where their flavors complement each other well.
Final Thoughts About Cilantro
- Historical Significance: Cilantro, or coriander, is one of the world’s oldest spices. It was even found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, presumably to keep the Pharaoh fresh in the afterlife!
- Worldwide Use: The seeds and leaves of the cilantro plant are used in cuisines all around the world, from Mexican and South American cuisine to Middle Eastern, Asian, and Mediterranean cooking.
- Medicinal Properties: Coriander seeds have been used in traditional medicine for their potential health benefits, including aiding digestion, reducing inflammation, and fighting infections.
- Bolting: If you’re growing cilantro, a fun term to know is “bolting.” This is when the plant rapidly sends up a flower stalk and goes to seed, usually when the weather gets too hot. For the gardener, this can be a problem, as the leaves often become more bitter after bolting.
- Cilantro vs. Culantro: Despite the similar names, cilantro and culantro are not the same plant. Culantro has long, serrated leaves and a similar flavor to cilantro, but it’s much stronger. It’s popular in Caribbean and Asian cooking.
- Bees Love Cilantro: If you’re into bee-friendly gardening, let some of your cilantro plants flower. Bees and other beneficial insects love the flowers.
- Natural Food Preservative: Coriander oil, obtained from coriander seeds, acts as a natural food preservative because it inhibits the growth of certain bacteria and fungi.
- All Parts Are Edible: The entire cilantro plant is edible, including the leaves, stems, seeds, and even the flowers!
- Coriander in Drinks: Coriander seeds are sometimes used in brewing certain types of beer, especially Belgian and wheat beers. They’re also used in gin distillation.
Hopefully, these facts can add some extra flavor to your garden and your table. Enjoy!