What Is Cilantro And What Does It Taste Like?

Cilantro is one of the most versatile herbs on earth, and it's a staple ingredient in many Mexican, Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern dishes. Most often eaten fresh, cilantro is a welcome addition in salsa, curry, and zesty sauces.

It could be easy to confuse cilantro and parsley at the grocery store if you're not careful. While cilantro is actually part of the parsley family and has a similar look, it tastes quite different. You can recognize the herb by its saw-toothed leaves and its bright, citrusy smell. 

You might have heard cilantro called different names all over the world, like Chinese parsley, Mexican parsley, or fresh coriander. What's the difference here? Cilantro refers to the leaves and stalks of the coriandrum sativum plant, which are what is most often used in cooking, according to Healthline. The dried seeds of the plant, meanwhile, are known simply as coriander. Still, you can eat every bit of the cilantro plant, even the root, though topping your tacos with the root might bring about a totally different flavor.

NPR says this tasty herb has been around for millennia, first being discovered in 8,000-year-old caves in Israel. Surprisingly enough, this herb is so popular that even King Tut had seeds scattered in his tomb. What a cool discovery that must've been! Although cilantro is native to the Mediterranean and Middle East regions, the herb is used globally.

What does cilantro taste like?

Some people aren't so lucky when it comes to enjoying cilantro. For the lucky ones, the herb tastes like fresh lemon — bright and airy with a hint of pepper. Lovely, right? For others, it tastes like a spoonful of dish soap and has become the subject of a lot of hate. This soap flavor comes from the naturally occuring aldehyde chemical in the leaves, which also happens to be produced when making soap. Delishably says that people with European ancestry are genetically predisposed to detect the soap flavor, which is why you won't find cilantro in many Western dishes. The publication estimates that up to 20% of the population could be genetically predisposed to dislike cilantro.

The only way to see how cilantro tastes to you is to try it. When fresh, bright, green, and soft, the flavor of cilantro is best used as a garnish. It does particularly well on spicy foods because the flavor can tame the spice and adds an herbaceous note.

How to cook with cilantro

The first thing to do before cooking with cilantro is to wash it thoroughly to remove the grit and dirt that may be on the roots and leaves. While picking leaves of cilantro off the stem will get the job done, some cooks prefer to chop them to the size of their choice.

Because cilantro can lose its flavor when cooked, the herb is best used as a garnish at the end of cooking or mixed in with things like salsa or pico de gallo. If you want to add it to a sauce, it is best to pulse in a food processor. For sauces like chimichurri, cilantro can be pulsed, but in dips like guacamole, chopped is fine.

You'll commonly find cilantro a top tacos, and in dishes like chicken tikka masala, chutney, chermoula, pad thai, and zhug, where its freshness makes everything pop.

Is cilantro healthy?

Cilantro may be an herb but it's packed with vitamins, including A, C, and K. Fresh cilantro is 92.2% water, making it incredibly low in calories, per Healthline. One cup of cilantro only has about four calories, and less than one gram of fat, carbs, and protein. Medical News Today says that on top of vitamins, it has small amounts of folate, potassium, beta-carotene, and manganese. Healthline reports that while more studies need to be conducted, preliminary research shows that cilantro may reduce inflammation, lower blood sugar levels, and help with fighting infection.

Cilantro is a great, nutritious way to liven up any dish or beverage. If you are tired of the same old salads, margaritas, or fish tacos, cilantro is sure to enhance your flavors.

The best way to store cilantro

For such a diverse herb that can be grown in your own home, it's good to know just how long it'll last. Whether growing inside or outside, there are a few things to know to perfect your cilantro garden. Bonnie Plants says the best time to start growing the herb is in early spring or fall. These plants should be kept moist in well-draining soil.

If you've just picked up a bundle of cilantro at the market, you'll want to make sure you've stored it properly as leafy herbs can spoil rather quickly. The best way to keep cilantro fresh is to not wash it until right before you use it. Treat cilantro a bit like fresh flowers, and keep the stems in a cup of water with a loosened plastic bag covering the leaves. Cilantro can be kept in the fridge, but it won't be good beyond a week.

Another trick to keeping cilantro fresh for even longer is to first blanch cilantro, dry it, and then store it in a freezer-safe bag. Other options include freezing cilantro in ice cube trays along with a neutral oil or mixing the herb with salt and then storing it in the fridge. These hacks work particularly well when you're using cilantro in a blended recipe, like pesto.