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June, 2009

Cilantro and Coriander

By Dennis Linden

Cilantro is the fresh leaf of the Coriander plant and is sold in parsley-like bunches.

Cilantro and Coriander
Although its heritage traces to the ancient cuisines of North Africa and Asia, it is usually found in the Hispanic section of retail produce departments. The word Coriander, in food preparation, always refers to the dried seeds that are used as a spice and not the fresh leaves of the plant. Although both cilantro and coriander are of the same plant, they cannot be used interchangeably in cooking as their flavor profiles are very different. Cilantro is a wonderful ingredient that can be used in many cuisines, but requires some special handling knowledge in order to take full advantage of its distinctive taste and versatility. First and foremost, the secret to ensuring a surprisingly long shelf life for this seemingly delicate leafy green, rather than placing it in a slimy bag in the crisper just a few days after purchase, is to never store cilantro in a crisper in the first place! Instead, cut a half-inch off the stems and remove any drooping leaves or broken stems to make a nice compact bunch. Rinse and dry the leaves as much as possible, then place the bunch in a container with about two inches of water. Cover the entire bunch with a plastic produce bag, leave plenty of room for the leaves to breath but secure it tightly around the bottom of the glass with a rubber band and refrigerate. If you change the water every third day, you can keep cilantro fresh and perky for up to ten days.

Fresh cilantro leaves do not simmer well because heat diminishes their flavor quickly. The leaves should be removed from their stems and added to a dish just before serving. In fact, a very quick rough chop of the leaves will release the herb’s full strength of flavor; again, chop and use immediately. While one could, in theory, dry cilantro in the same manner as parsley or basil, its taste will be greatly diminished, if not dissipate completely. The only way to get a good flavor bang for your buck is in fresh cilantro leaves. It should be mentioned that fresh cilantro can taste soapy and unpleasant to some people who have a certain genetic quirk that gives their saliva a specific enzyme. For those who can enjoy it, the flavor of cilantro is fresh and tangy with a slight hint of aromatic sage and citrus. Cilantro also has the culinary attribute of tapering down some of the heat from chile peppers used in many Southeast Asian and Latin American dishes.

As with any spice, coriander seeds should be kept in a sealed container away from light and heat. The flavor will begin to diminish after about six months, so it is best to buy fresh seeds in small quantities as needed. The bulk foods department is the most economical way to purchase small amounts of any spice and be assured of freshness. Coriander seeds should be roasted or heated in a dry pan briefly before grinding to enhance the taste and aroma. Likewise, fresh ground coriander loses flavor very quickly and should not be stored. The crushed seeds have a distinctly lemony citrus taste with a hint of sage overtones. This is because the seeds contain the same oil that is in citrus peel. Unlike cilantro, ground coriander seeds do make an excellent cooking spice in stews, sauces, soups and baked goods. Cilantro and coriander are purported to be some of the most widely used herbs in the world. That said, except for coriander powder in baked goods, both are relatively rare ingredients in American and European cuisines for some reason. Instead, the less flavorful parsley fills the place in recipes where cilantro would add much more flavor. In fact, try subbing cilantro every time a recipe calls for parsley. You’ll be amazed at how different each dish tastes with this simple switch of a bunch!