Every year since 1995, the International Herb Association has chosen an Herb of the Year to develop and coordinate national attention on herbs, herb uses, herb businesses and the IHA. Selections have been chosen up to the year 2020. Choices are based on herbs that are outstanding in at least two of the three major categories: medicinal, culinary or decorative.
Coriander/Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) has been chosen as the Herb of the Year for 2017.
Cilantro and coriander are the same plant. The leaves are referred to as cilantro and the seeds are referred to as coriander. Both the leaves and seeds have had culinary value since medieval times. All parts of the plant are edible but the leaves and aromatic seeds are most often used.
Coriander sativum is native to the eastern Mediterranean region and is popular in Mexican, Asian and Indian cuisine. Cultivated for more than 3,000 years, cilantro was used by Roman and Greek physicians, including Hippocrates, to make medicines. It is also a component of perfume, and has been used to mask the smell of rotten meat. During the Chinese Han dynasty 2,000 years ago, it was thought to have the power to make people immortal. Cilantro was brought to the British Colonies of North America in 1670, making it one of the first herbs to be cultivated by the early settlers. Today it’s still used by naturopaths and has been the subject of many positive inquiries by formal research institutions.
Many of the healing properties of cilantro can be attributed to its exceptional phyonutrient content, flavonoids and active phenolic acid compounds. It is also an excellent source of minerals like potassium, calcium, manganese, iron and magnesium. It is also rich in vitamins, including folic-acid, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin C, and is one of the riches herbal sources of vitamin K (258% of DRI). Cilantro leaves contain 23 calories in 3.5 ounces.
A compound found in the leaves, dodecanal, has been found to have an antibacterial effect against salmonella. Cilantro has been found to suppress lead accumulation in rats, which may make it effective for toxic metal cleansing; the chemical compounds bind to toxic metals and loosen them from the tissues. Because of its chelation abilities, it is being studied as a natural water purifier.
James A. Duke, PhD., a former botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and author of the Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (considered the definitive work on medicinal herbs and their uses), praises the digestive system promoting benefits of cilantro and recommends drinking a cup of the tea made from a handful of leaves, when experiencing any form of stomach discomfort.
Cilantro was recently added to the list of foods high in pesticides, so it’s best to purchase organic. A bunch will keep in the refrigerator for a week if you cut the stems and place them in a glass of water, and then loosely cover the leaves with a plastic bag. But cilantro is so easy to grow, consider sowing seeds in the vegetable/herb garden, or starting seeds in a pot on the windowsill.
Cilantro is grown as an annual in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. When the temperature heats up, the plant sends up a flower stalk and sets seed (this process is called bolting). To manage this, sow seeds successively every two weeks and plant varieties that are slow to bolt such as ‘Slow Bolt’, ‘Leisure’, ‘Longstanding’ and ‘Santo’.
Sow cilantro seeds ¼” deep directly in moist, fertile soil in a partly sunny place in the garden. Morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. Space seeds 6-8” apart. Seeds germinate in 7-10 days. The plant can grow to 5’ tall, but is best harvested when leaves reach 9-15” in height, usually in 3-4 weeks of sowing. Small umbels of white or pink flowers follow six weeks later, followed by plentiful oval, aromatic seeds. If harvesting seeds for cooking, store them in the refrigerator as they are prone to have weevils.
Because of its strong scent, cilantro rarely has problems with insects. Plants may be susceptible to leaf spot and powdery mildew. Prevent these problems by growing in well-drained soil, do not overwater, and thin plants to allow good air circulation.
Coriander flowers are an important source of nectar for the beneficial insects that prey upon pest insects.
Harvest leaves as needed, cutting stems close to the ground. For the best taste, harvest the entire plant before it blooms. Drying cilantro leaves is not recommended, as much of the flavor and aroma is lost in the process. Blending the leaves with a small amount of oil and freezing small amounts in ice cube trays retains the color and flavor.
How to Cook with Cilantro
Although cilantro and coriander come from the same plant, their flavors are very different and cannot be substituted for each other. Some countries refer to cilantro as “fresh coriander” or “coriander leaves”. Culantro is an herb that is related to cilantro and is widely used in dishes throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and the Far East.
Cilantro is a tender herb with bright green, finely cut, compound leaves that are pungent in flavor. It is best used leaves raw or added near the end of cooking in order to maintain its delicate flavor and texture.
The flavor of cilantro enhances chicken, shellfish, fish, pork, beans, rice, tomatoes and avocados.
When preparing cilantro, separate the leaves from the stems and use only the leaves. Use a sharp knife and cut gently. Cutting with a dull knife or over chopping will bruise the herb and much of the flavor will be left on the cutting board.
Cilantro pairs well with many dishes, especially Mexican, Asian and Indian cuisine. Cilantro is the secret ingredient in this Fresh Tomato soup that is quick and easy to make:
Fresh Tomato Soup
½ Yellow Onion, chopped 1 stalk Celery, chopped
1 Jalapeno pepper, minced 1 Anaheim pepper, chopped
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil 2 Tablespoons Flour
½ cup White Wine or Water 3 cups Chicken Stock
1 28 ounce can peeled San Marzano Tomatoes 2 Tablespoons Cilantro, chopped
Optional Garnish: Sour Cream and chopped Cilantro
Sauté onion, celery and peppers in olive oil until soft, about five minutes. Stir in flour to coat the vegetables and cook until just beginning to turn light brown. Deglaze the pan with wine (or water) and stir thoroughly. Add the chicken stock, crushed tomatoes and cilantro and cook until the flavors come together, about 20-30 minutes. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and chopped cilantro if desired.
Serves 2 generously
Cilantro: Love It or Hate It?
Few herbs elicit such heated reactions as cilantro. Cilantro lovers say it has a refreshing, lemony or lime-like flavor. Cilantro haters say it tastes soapy, rotten or just plain vile and just a whiff is enough to make them push their plates away.
The Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word coriander is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug, and that the aroma of cilantro “has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes”.
Flavor chemists have found that the aroma of cilantro is created mostly by modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes; the same aldehydes found in soaps and the bug family of insects.
Hank Green, host of SciShow cites studies in which scientists have determined that most cilantro haters (4-14% of the population) share a group of olfactory-receptor genes, called OR6A2, that make them sensitive to the chemicals that give cilantro its distinctive fragrance.
Another study indicates that almost 25% of the population are supertasters: they have more taste buds on their tongue than most of the population, and could be tasting foods at a different level than most. Supertasters have an aversion to bitter flavors like grapefruit, black coffee and cilantro. They are also put off by overly sweet or fatty tastes as well.
Jay Gottfried, a Neuroscientist at Northwestern University, studies how the brain perceives smells and he notes that the sense of smell evokes strong emotions because it was critical in our early ancestry to determine if foods were safe to eat. If a flavor was unfamiliar, or smells like a cleaning agent or bugs, then the brain considers it a threat to our safety.
So if you hate cilantro, realize it’s not your fault: it’s in your genes.
Want to learn more? Check out these sources:
Balick PhD, Michael J. 21st Century Herbal. Rodale Books. 2014.
Callaway, Ewen. Soapy Taste of Coriander Linked to Genetic Variants. Nature. September 12, 2012.
Davidson, Alan. Oxford Companion to Food. 2006.
Duke PhD, James A. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. CRC Press. 2002.
Group, Dr. Edward. The Health Benefits of Cilantro. Global Healing Center. October 14, 2015.
Hill, Madalene and Barclay, Gwen. Southern Herb Growing. Shearer Publishing. 1987.
Ingells-Arkell, Esther. 25% of the Population are Supertasters – Are You One of Them? Madscience. October 23, 2010.
Kurz, Josh. Getting to the Root of the Great Cilantro Divide. NPR. December 26, 2008.
Ledbetter, Carly. Science Explains Why Cilantro Tastes Like Soap to Some People. Huffington Post. June 24, 2015.
McGee, Harold. Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault. The New York Times. April 13, 2010.
Rubenstein, Sarah. Across the Land, People are Fuming Over an Herb (No, Not That One). Wall Street Journal. February 13, 2009.
Ware, Megan RDN, LD. Cilantro: Health Benefits, Facts. Medical News Today. September 1, 2016.