Cilantro and flat-leaf parsley are both tender green herbs, but the similarities pretty much end there: when it comes to flavoring your dishes, cilantro and parsley are very different, and understanding the differences could help you be a better cook.
Cilantro vs Parsley: How to Tell the Difference
First of all, note that we're talking about flat-leaf parsley here (not the curly variety). Flat-leaf parsley, also called Italian parsley, is the most common parsley found in grocery stores and the one typically used as a flavorful herb. It also looks a lot like cilantro. Curly-leafed parsley is usually used as a garnish (though it can also add flavor to food).
Flat-leaf or Italian parsley has longish, pointed leaves that are slightly darker green than cilantro:
Cilantro has shorter, rounder leaves that are slightly more pale than parsley:
They look quite similar, but once you get familiar with these herbs, it's easy to tell the difference.
If we draw a line around the leaves, it's even easier to see the difference in shape. Cilantro is rounder:
While parsley is more pointed:
The difference isn't huge, but if you're looking for it, you can see it easily.
Parsley has a mild, grassy smell. Cilantro has a brighter, more complex aroma that some people compare to lemon or sage, though it really is its own thing.
The smell gets stronger when you chop or tear the herbs, and the two plants are easily distinguished this way. If you're grocery shopping and trying to tell the difference (and they're not labeled, such as at a farmer's market), tear a leaf a little to release the aroma--you should be able to determine which herb it is immediately.
Parsley is a mild-tasting herb that mostly adds freshness to savory foods. It's great sprinkled over many dishes as a finish, used to add brightness to brothy soups, as a mild enhancement in green salads, and as a mild-tasting garnish that adds color to a dish. Because of it's mild flavor, it works well with many different foods.
Cilantro has a bolder flavor that tends to polarize people (more on that in a minute). Many people describe it as citrusy or lemony, though the flavor is hard to describe because it's unique in the herb world.
Simple Mnemonics (to Help You Remember the Difference)
A mnemonic is a simple phrase that sticks in your head and helps you remember more complicated information. A common example is "ROY G. BIV" for the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet--in that order).
Mnemonics don't work for everyone, but if they work for you, here are two simple mnemonics to help you remember the difference between cilantro and parsley:
Cilantro leaves are rounder, so remember: "Cilant-ro-und." (See what we did there?)
Parsley leaves are more pointed, so remember: "Parsley-pointed."
If you can remember these simple phrases, or even just one of them, you can pick out the right herb every time, even when they're not labeled.
So Which One Is Better: Cilantro or Parsley?
We're answering this question because people ask it question fairly often. It's kind of silly, though. It's like asking if pancakes are better than steak. The answer (of course) is that it depends.
If you hate cilantro, parsley is always going to be better. But for people who like them both, it really depends on what you're making and what flavor profile you're going for. Cilantro is always going to be better in guacamole or salsa than parsley, for example (and if you're a cilantro hater, just leave it out--don't substitute with parsley or anything else because there's nothing else that's going to replace the cilantro flavor).
And parsley is always going to be the better garnish for something like traditional chicken soup, because cilantro would change the flavor profile, which is not what you want with traditional chicken soup (although cilantro would be an integral ingredient in an Asian-style chicken soup).
Nutrition-wise, they are both good for you (more on that in a minute). So the only reason to pick one over the other is because of the flavor you want to achieve in your dish.
The upshot: cilantro and parsley are equal, but different.
Why Is Cilantro Sometimes Called Coriander?
The herb cilantro comes from the same plant as the spice coriander: the Coriandrum sativum plant. Though they are different spices with different flavors and different nutritional profiles, they are sometimes confused, mostly because naming conventions are not the same throughout the world.
In the United States and North America in general, cilantro refers to the leaves, and coriander refers to the seeds of Coriandrum sativum. However, in other parts of the world, coriander refers to either the leaves or the seeds of the plant. It is often written as fresh coriander for the leaves and coriander seed for the ground seeds, but not always.
So only in North America is the term "cilantro" used for the leaves of the plant. If you use the word "cilantro" in Great Britain, they may not know what you're talking about.
This is important information: If you're using a recipe that originates from outside North America, be sure to select the right spice: coriander may mean cilantro (the leaves of the plant) or the seeds. If they don't clearly state whether it's "fresh coriander" or "coriander seed," you will have to make your best guess at which one the recipe calls for.
One clue is how the recipe is worded. If it calls for a teaspoon of coriander or similar measurement, you know it means the ground seeds. If it calls for chopped coriander, then you know it's the leaves.
Why Do Some People Hate Cilantro?
While for some it may just be personal preference, genetics can determine whether a person is going to love or hate cilantro. For a small percentage of the population, cilantro tastes like soap--in other words, disgusting.
So even if you love cilantro, don't make the mistake of serving it to guests without finding out beforehand if they have the "cilantro is disgusting" gene. If they have the gene, any hint of cilantro can completely ruin a dish for them.
When to Use Cilantro vs When to Use Parsley
Cilantro isn't nearly as universal as parsley. It is used only in certain cuisines, though it will add excellent flavor to many dishes. Cilantro is commonly found in Mexican and Asian cuisines (including Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian), but seen less often in other ethnic foods. You may sometimes see cilantro called "Chinese parsley."
Common uses for cilantro include salsas, guacamole, Mexican soups and stews, Asian stir fries, fried rice, and Vietnamese and Thai salads and soups, and in many Indian dishes.
This doesn't mean you can't use cilantro in other dishes; if you love it, experiment with it. Many people use cilantro in vinaigrettes, marinades, and other dishes that don't quite fit the Mexican or Asian profile. You can add cilantro to many savory dishes, as long as you're aware that it will change the flavor profile significantly (unlike parsley, which is more likely to simply enhance or underline the existing profile).
Because of its mild flavor, you can use parsley in pretty much any savory dish. It adds hints of freshness that enhance many foods. There are a few foods that feature parsley, like tabouleh and chimichurri (which can also feature cilantro, as does the recipe we've linked to here). But much of the time, parsley is such a mild addition to dishes that you can leave it out if you don't have it, and it won't affect the final dish all that much--unless of course it's tabouleh or chimichurri, in which case parsley is an essential ingredient.
Can You Substitute Parsley for Cilantro in a Recipe (And Vice Versa)?
Sometimes is the best answer here.
You can certainly use cilantro instead of parsley in Mexican and Asian dishes for sure. In other cuisines, the cilantro may or may not work in place of parsley. You can do a taste test to see, or you can just leave it out, or you can try a different, milder tasting parsley substitute (such as finely chopped carrot greens).
You can use parsley instead of cilantro in many dishes, but the result will be a very different flavor profile, one with considerably less personality.
In some instances, you can use parsley and cilantro together. For example, they go well together in grain salads like tabouleh and quinoa/herb/veggie mixes, and in chimichurri (as noted above). Or, if you're making a recipe that calls for any combination of herbs (there are many recipes that do, especially salads), parsley and cilantro are an excellent combination (along with basil and mint).
Some websites will tell you that parsley and cilantro are valid substitutes for each other, but we recommend that you do a taste test before committing to either one as a substitute for the other. The flavors are very different, and they're not going to work for each other in every dish.
Which One Is Healthier: Cilantro or Parsley?
According to Livestrong, parsley and cilantro have similar nutritional profiles, and both are extremely healthy. They each contain about 25 calories per cup, are low in sodium and nearly fat-free. They have significant amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, and iron.
Both of these herbs also help to regulate blood sugar. Parsley has anti-imflammatory properties that are thought to lower blood sugar. Cilantro increases enzyme activity that processes blood sugar, also resulting in lower blood sugar levels.
They're both also great for heart health, especially cilantro, which has been shown in studies to lower cholesterol and triglycerides.
In addition, cilantro contains quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory and detoxifying effects on your body, while parsley is great for digestive aid and can also help with bloating issues.
In short, your body will benefit from both of these flavorful herbs.
How to Store and Freeze Cilantro and Parsley (and Other Tender Herbs)
Both cilantro and parsley are in the category of tender-leafed herbs, which means you can use the same care and storage methods to get the maximum life out of them. These methods will work well for most tender herbs (but keep basil at room temperature, not in the fridge, which will kill it really fast).
There are two proven methods to store tender herbs. We'll give you both of them here; you can experiment to see which method works best for you. (There are a lot of opposing opinions on which is best, and we think it may depend on your individual circumstances as to which one is best for you.)
Both methods should allow you to keep herbs fresh for at least two weeks, as long as you're diligent about removing the dying leaves and stems (because they'll cause the fresh leaves to rot faster).
We'll also tell you how to freeze cilantro and parsley--a great way to ensure you use every last leaf.
Method 1: Stems-in-Water
1. Rinse the herbs and dry them. Blot with a paper towel or use a salad spinner to get them as dry as you can.
2. Trim stems 1-2 inches, depending on stem length and jar size.
3. Fill a jar about halfway with water (enough to submerge the stems so the ends are covered completely--a pint mason jar works well here).
4. Insert the trimmed parsley or cilantro stalks into the jar, making sure all stems are submerged.
5. At this point you can cover with a plastic bag or leave uncovered. Both methods work, and you can experiment to see which method works better for you. If you do cover, you can leave the bag loose or use a rubber band to secure it to the jar. (Again, there is controversy as to which method is best.)
6. Change the water every few days as it gets cloudy, removing any yellowing or browning leaves and stems before returning to fridge.
NOTE: You can also buy an herb keeper, pictured above, which is basically the same method, if it's easier for you than using a jar and a bag, or haven't had luck with a jar and no bag. (Large herb keepers can fit more than one bunch at a time, which is great--but it does take up precious refrigerator space.) Herb keepers promise even longer life, but reviews are mixed, although we've had good experience with them.
Method 2: Rolling-in-Paper-Towel
1. Rinse the herbs and make sure they're dry--blot with a paper towel or use a salad spinner to get them as dry as you can.
2. Roll the herbs gently but snugly up in a damp (not wet!) paper towel.
3. Place the rolled-up herbs in an airtight bag (like a zip-top bag). Push out as much air as you can and seal the bag.
4. Check the herbs every few days and remove yellowing or browning leaves and stems.
5. Make sure the paper towel is slightly damp before returning to the fridge, re-wetting it if necessary.
Should You Rinse Herbs Before Storing?
There are mixed opinions on this. Some experts say that you shouldn't rinse your herbs until you're ready to use them because excess moisture causes them to wilt and rot faster (this is true).
Other experts say it's imperative to rinse your herbs because they'll be covered with damaging bacteria when you get them home from the store, so rinsing that away will result in longer life.
We are strongly in the camp of washing as soon as you get them home, and here's why: if those herbs are already washed, there's about a 150% greater chance that you'll actually use them. If you have to wash them when you're trying to get a meal on the table and are pressed for time, you may just reach for your bottled spices instead. So it just makes good sense to make rinsing your herbs--as well as other produce--before storing a part of your grocery shopping routine.
Also, washing the herbs before storage ensures they're dry and ready to go exactly when you need them (dry herbs are easier to work with).
But you do you, because either way works. Whichever you choose, the most important thing is that the herbs are completely dry before storing.
How to Freeze Parsley and Cilantro
You can also freeze parsley and cilantro. Here's how:
1. Pulse the herbs, plus enough water or olive oil to make a paste, in a food processor until well blended.
2. Freeze the herby paste in an ice cube tray.
3. When frozen, place the cubes in an airtight bag.
4. Toss the cubes into soups, stews, and other savory dishes as needed for an easy flavor boost.
You can also just throw a clean bunch of parsley or cilantro into a zip top bag and throw it in the freezer, but we really recommend the ice cube tray method: it's easy, and it makes the herbs much easier to portion out and use.
Parsley and cilantro are both healthy, delicious herbs that are an excellent addition to any cuisine. In some cases you can substitute one for the other, but they each have a unique flavor that works better with some dishes than others (especially cilantro).
You can experiment to find out how you like to use them, and if you store them properly, they'll both last for at least two weeks in the fridge, giving you ample time to play with them.
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