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Cilantro and Coriander: Kitchen Basics

Cilantro leaves and coriander seedsThe cilantro plant and the coriander plant are the same plant. In most parts of the world, coriander is simply known as coriander. However, in the United States coriander refers to the seeds of the coriander plant, and cilantro refers to the herb leaves of the coriander plant.

Why the difference?

Well, it basically comes down to differentiating an herb from a spice in the kitchen. Just to review the basics: an herb used in cookery usually comes from the leafy part of a plant, and a spice usually comes from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds, or stems of a plant.

So in the United States and wherever else the distinction is made, cilantro refers to the bright green leaves of the coriander plant—which are glossy and oval with shallow lobbing resembling flat parsley lower down on the stem and finely divided and feathery on the upper reaches of the stem, and coriander refers to the plant’s seeds which are very small—just ⅛ inch (.3 cm) long, yellowish-tan colored, and lightly ridged.

Cilantro leaves. Cilantro, which is sometimes called Chinese parsley, is pungently fragrant smelling: either musty and earthy or refreshingly lemony-gingery depending upon whom you talk to.

Cilantro accounts for the pungent flavor of Latin American soups, salads, and stews. (Cilantro is used in Latin American dishes the way parsley is used in French and American dishes.) It is also used as a fresh garnish in Chinese steamed fish, shellfish, noodle dishes, soups, and stews, and in Indian chutneys, Moroccan stews, and Thai salads. Think tangy!

Coriander seed. Coriander—the seed and spice—has a flavor nothing like cilantro, the herb. The spice coriander is sweet and warm with flavor hints of orange peel or sweet lemon. Coriander seeds are pleasantly fragrant, almost sweet smelling.

Ground or coarsely crushed coriander seeds are added to cakes, cookies, apple pie, fruit crumbles, Danish pastry, Swedish butter cookies, and breads. Whole or ground coriander seeds add flavor to seafood, fish, rice, delicatessen meats, hot dogs, sausages, lamb, pork, chicken, omelets, potatoes, cheeses, curries, and marinades.

In the United States and Europe, whole coriander is used as a pickling spice. In the Middle East, it’s used to flavor vegetables, stews, and sausages. In the West Indies, it’s used in masalas, and in Mexico coriander is often paired with cumin.

Harvest. The coriander plant is a hardy annual that is native to the Mediterranean region. The plant can grow to 36 inches (90 cm) tall and half as wide.

Cilantro leaves can be gathered throughout the growing season and used fresh. Clusters of small white or pinkish flowers will appear towards the end of the growing season and after blooming will produce seeds. Coriander seeds can be harvested when they change from green to beige or light brown. The seed harvest usually occurs after plants have been cut and left to dry for 2 or 3 days. Then the seeds heads can be placed in a paper bag and threshed.

Choose. Select cilantro leaves that are bright green, even colored and show no sign of wilting. Leaves are ready for use when they are about 6 inches (15 cm) long.

Coriander seeds are ready to use when they turn yellowish-brown. You can harvest coriander seed heads by placing them upside down in a paper bag. As the seeds ripen they will drop into the bag.

Store. Keep cilantro leaves for up to 1 week in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, or place bunches stem down in a glass of water and cover with a plastic bag, changing the water every 2 or 3 days. Cilantro can be frozen in ice cube trays covered by a little water. Dried cilantro is flavorless and not worth using.

Whole coriander seeds can be stored in a dry, cool, dark place, but once ground they loose their aromatic properties.

Serve. Use cilantro leaves fresh in salads, salsas, marinades, stir-fries, rice, pastas, or vinegars and with fish and shellfish. Add leaves to guacamole or to Chinese soups and Asian chicken dishes.

Add fresh lower leaves to curries, stews, salads, sauces, and as a garnish.

Use whole dried coriander seeds in potato salad, tomato chutney, ratatouille, frankfurters, marinades, salad dressings, eggs, cheeses, lamb, sausage, pickles, chutneys, curries, also in apple pies, cakes, biscuits, cookies, cooked fruits, and marmalade.

Toast whole coriander seed briefly in a dry skillet to bring out the flavor.

Flavor partners. Cilantro has a flavor affinity for avocado, beef, ceviche, chicken, chiles, coconut milk, corn, cucumber, fish and seafood, ginger, lemon, lime, mint, onion, parsley, pork, pumpkin seed, shrimp, and tomato.

  • Cilantro combines well with basil, chili, chives, dill, galangal, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, mint, and parsley.
  • Coriander has a flavor affinity for apple, artichoke, asparagus, beet, cardoon, carrot, celeriac, chicken, citrus fruit, fennel, fish, gin, ginger, ham, leek, lemon, mushrooms, parsnip, plums, polenta, pork, potatoes, and sausage.
  • Coriander combines well with allspice, chili, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, mace, and nutmeg.

Nutrition. Fresh cilantro leaves are rich in calcium, phosphorus and vitamins A and C.

Coriander and cilantro facts and trivia. Coriander had been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used cilantro and coriander as herbal remedies and in food preparation. The Romans introduced coriander to Northern Europe.

The name coriander comes from the Greek word koris which means bug. Some say—and undoubtedly the ancient Greeks agreed–that the coriander plant smells like the bedbug insect.

The botanical name for the coriander plant is Coriandrum sativum.

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