How to Use Cilantro, A Mainstream American Ingredient

Bag of Cilantro from CostcoCilantro, once exotic, is now firmly part of the mainstream American diet. How do I know?

Costco in Anchorage, Alaska, at the far reach of America’s supply chain, is selling fresh cilantro, washed and trimmed, in large, 12-ounce bags for $2.99. Cilantro is also sold at every Anchorage grocery store.

Twelve ounces of cleaned cilantro (3/4 pound) is a lot for a family to use, especially because cilantro is a delicate herb that spoils quickly. Hating waste, and loving cilantro, I’ve dedicated myself to finding delicious ways of using this versatile herb.

I can’t write about cilantro without mentioning the legions of Americans who can’t stand the stuff. Speaking on behalf of cilantro-haters everywhere, Julia Child once told Larry King, “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me…I would pick [cilantro] out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”

In a 2010 New York Times article, food scientist Harold McGee tried to get to the bottom of cilantrophobia. He discovered cilantro aroma and flavor are mostly contained in “modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes.”

The same or similar aldehydes are found in soaps and lotions, accounting, in part, for why some people think cilantro tastes soapy. Genetics are another little-studied explanation for why some people perceive soapiness and others don’t. McGee talked to neuroscientists, however, who think there’s a better explanation for cilantrophobia than genetics.

When we taste something new, the brain searches its database of tastes and smells for something similar.  If there isn’t a past food match for the new taste, but there is a match for something that isn’t edible (like soap or lotion), the brain “highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety.” The result? We don’t like the new food.

The brain, however, continually updates and changes its database and, thus, how we perceive food. If we keep eating food with cilantro in it, even if we initially don’t like it, our brains can learn to accept cilantro as safe. “It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”

In other words, with cilantro and other “unusual” foods, familiarity may breed enjoyment. Tasting a new food only once may not give your brain sufficent time to adjust to new and different flavors.

McGee also discovered a way to reduce cilantro’s “soapy” characteristic, for those who perceive it that way. “A Japanese study published in January [2010] suggested that crushing the leaves will give leaf enzymes the chance to gradually convert the aldehydes into other substances with no aroma… Sure enough, I’ve found cilantro pestos to be…surprisingly mild.”

With a tip of the hat to Harold McGee, and with hope of converting at least one cilantrophobe, today’s cilantro recipes all require crushing the leaves.

Between Cilantro Pesto and Cilantro, Parsley and Basil Sauce, I’ve used up my most recent bag of Costco cilantro. I’m ready to buy another (well, actually, my third, but who’s counting). I also use cilantro in Kookoo Sabzi, Moroccan Chermoula & Carrot Soup, and Asian Salmon Burgers with Lime, Cilantro & Edamame Spread.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:


17 Responses to How to Use Cilantro, A Mainstream American Ingredient

  1. I had read the article on cilantro by Harold McGee last year and I had an “aha!” moment when I read the research on why people hate its taste. I am one of those people who think cilantro has a soapy flavor but strangely enough, this taste disappears when I mix it with other herbs or vegetables, much like you point out in your post. I would love to try the cilantro pesto and use it to top off a piece of salmon. Wonderful recipe.
    Also, I always thought arugula was a salad plant not a herb. Julia Child knew better of course so I stand corrected 🙂
    Thanks for all the great information and recipes.

    • I’d say arugula is both a salad plant AND an herb. Since Julia didn’t like and didn’t eat arugula, I question her authority on this particular topic. (!!)

  2. I’m down with the neuroscientists. I am a used-to-be cilantro-hater, but am growing to like it more and more, due to my love of Thai and Vietnamese food. Great article and explanation.

  3. Jim Parker says:

    Laurie- I bought a bag of Cilantro from Costco but wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. Cilantro pesto looks promising, thanks so much for tackling this important subject!

  4. Okay, I am completely overcome with envy that your Costco has cilantro. But I can get it at every other store here so I guess it’s not too bad. What a great collection of cilantro recipes!

  5. What is the greek word for cilantro? Is it cardamon or fresh coriander? I love the first,I hate the second but only when it is fresh, actually I like the seeds. If it’s cardamon it is wonderful,it can be mixed either in main plates or in desserts, especially the turkish ones made with milk.

    • Cilantro is κόλιανδρο in Greek. You might be surprised Mary – just like the scientist said in the article and a couple of the commenters wrote, if you try eating cilantro, you might learn to like it. It’s really funny how that works!

  6. Very interesting about the cilantrophobia. All is needed is some exposure therapy. So funny about the Anchorage Costco – I have been there before (best friend’s dad lives in Ninilchik and they STOCK UP…on butter). I love your sauces and can’t wait to try them both. Just need some of that fresh Alaskan fish…

    • Yep, your experience with exposure therapy is why I’m buying into the neuroscientists on cilantro rather than the geneticists. Ninilchik! The first place I lived in AK (early 70s)-now that was an experience! I’d love to hear your Niinilchik stories sometime…

  7. I’m not too keen on cilantro myself – i’m afriad its a taste that doesnt quite suit the meals we cook in greece; this is an incredible revelation, since cretan food often contains many aromatic fresh greens – i tried adding it to some foods in the past, but its foreigness is detected immediately by my eaters

    on top of this, cilantro (whose greek name suggests a very common baking spice) is rarely available fresh in crete; it is often found in north african cuisine, but it’s one of those foreign flavours that hasnt quite gained in popularity in the same way that ginger has in greece (ginger is now available everywhere)

    3/4 pound is a LOT to buy in one go – a simple posy’s worth would suffice!

    • The baking spice is actually the seeds of fresh cilantro; in English coriander (and why we call the seeds coriander and the leaves cilantro is another whole linguistic story). My friends from Cyprus say they use a lot of cilantro/fresh coriander there.

  8. This is priceless info! I am a cilantro adorer (which is the technical term for one step up from cilantro “lover”), and had never even thought about making pesto with it. Brilliant! Cilantro (at least when I grow it at home) has such a short harvest period, that a recipe like this will be perfect for those moments when I have a big influx. Thanks so, so much.

  9. I love coriander (same herb as cilantro in Australia) and my husband thinks it tastes soapy. However when I make it into a thai style marinade with garlic, chilli, fish sauce, palm sugar etc. he actually likes it. Thanks to your article, I now know why.
    By the way, the last pack of coriander I bought from the supermarket last week was $2.99 for 30g (approx 1 oz) so slighty more expensive that the US!
    I have just finished making your coriander, basil and parsley sauce for our salmon fillets tonight. It was too think for dolloping, so I blended it some more with a handful of toasted blanched almonds. Delicious.

    • Laurie Constantino says:

      Hi Ann! Adding blanched almonds to the sauce sounds like a tasty addition. Thanks for telling me about it — I’ll follow suit next time I make salmon. Thanks for dropping by! Laurie

  10. typo – not think, but thick!

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