Sick Of Strange Aftertastes? Cooking For Fussy Eaters? Here’s What You Need...
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Despite being an incredibly popular seasoning in a variety of cuisines, perhaps most notably Thai food, many of us can’t stand cilantro (or if you’re from Europe, you probably call it coriander.)
Cilantro is interchangeable with coriander seed, ground coriander, and Vietnamese coriander for those more sophisticated palates. A good cilantro substitute is dill or parsley or caraway seed.This funny little plant is like Marmite - you either love it or hate it. If you’re one of the former, you probably think it tastes like soap, right? Nobody wants their guacamole or fresh salad to taste like the inside of a Lush store.
More on the exact science behind the strange soapy sensation later, but for now, let’s talk about what you’re here for: cilantro substitutions. What can you use in place of this leafy green when a recipe calls for it?
First things first, if it’s serving as a garnish, you could just leave it out altogether, or experiment with other herbs you have to hand. Nobody is going to miss it in the recipe, unless you’ve promised them a cilantro taste!
When you want to fire up your food with a natural, almost grassy element like cilantro, but avoid upsetting the people who don’t like it, there are a couple of options for you:
Parsley is very often presumed to be cilantro anyway, as they are visually very similar.
It can be more bitter on average, but paired with fruits and veggies, it really enhances the overall freshness of a dish, especially if paired with a squirt of lemon juice.
Dill is quite different from cilantro, visually and as far as your palate is concerned.
However, you only need a tiny little bit to pack quite a large flavor punch, and it tastes good with pretty much anything. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up with a different dinner emergency.
Basil as a plant is closely related to cilantro, though the former has a natural sweetness that brings a little extra something, and flavorwise, the two are very similar.
Only now, a select few of your dinner guests won’t feel like they’re chewing on a bar of Dove!
A Mix of Different Herbs
Blending a mix of different herbs to replicate cilantro’s complicated taste is also a possibility - dill, basil and parsley obviously work great for this, but you could also throw in some oregano or tarragon to spice things up a little.
Top Tip: All of the above should be added AFTER cooking, prior to serving, as the intensity of their flavor will be significantly reduced once introduced to any heat.
You could also steer the dish in another taste direction, adding in a strong flavor that people generally tend to enjoy; where cilantro is called for, it’s usually to cut against another taste, so you need something that packs a punch, like garlic or pepper flakes.
But what about if your great-grandma’s special recipe stipulates you need dried or ground cilantro (or coriander seeds - where cilantro comes from) - what then?!
Don’t freak out - there are some seasoning powders you probably already have in your spice rack that could also work in your dish.
Caraway and ground cilantro seeds have a very similar taste - you can definitely swap them out for each other, no matter what it is you’re cooking up.
Do bear in mind that it tends to have a bit of a sweeter aftertaste, which works particularly well for leave-on rubs or marinades, as adding heat will only serve to enhance the flavor.
Cumin is often partnered up with cilantro in Latin American dishes, as well as in Thai curries and other gorgeous and fragrant foods.
Being on the spicier side, beware of using too much, but you and your guests will adore the fiery notes that cumin brings to just about anything.
Curry powder utilizes a variety of different dried spices and seasonings - one of which is cilantro - to create its unique and delicious flavor profile, which is strong enough to conquer anything you might be cooking and add a little pep.
Plus, if you taste something you’re not quite sure about, curry powder covers a multitude of sins!
Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap?
Now that you’re all sorted with a replacement seasoning, you might be wondering what it is that causes that funky soap flavor. Well, according to research at Cornell University, where approximately 30,000 participants were surveyed, it’s pretty simple.
Results indicate that the common denominator among those who don’t enjoy the taste of cilantro is one tiny little gene, known as OR6A2. Although its presence doesn’t GUARANTEE you’ll hate it, it certainly explains why you could.
As a receptor gene part of our tasting system, it works to code messages that you receive from what’s known as an aldehyde chemical - aldehyde itself is ALSO found in certain soaps, as well as existing in the bodies of specific bugs… ew.
Anyway, because soap and cilantro share this one unique property, it can cause people to offhandedly remark about their similarities, especially in flavor. Not that anybody eats soap on purpose - it’s more the smell that this herb is reminiscent of.
Likewise, if your tongue is larger than average, or has a higher density of ‘papillae’ - the small bumpy things on your tongue in which taste buds are contained - you’ll have a higher concentration of receptors generally, making you more likely to be sensitive to stronger flavors.
But wait, there’s more! A further study from the food journal Flavour revealed that those living in specific parts of the world are more likely to hate the taste of cilantro:
Between 3-7% of folks in South Asia and the Middle East spurn cilantro, compared to a whopping 17% of people from Europe.
Essentially, it’s all about science and geography and culture. If you’re exposed to a flavor early, you’re more likely to enjoy it, which is why South Asian communities tend to dislike it less - it’s present in a lot of their traditional dishes, which are consumed from a young age.
Can I Teach Myself To Like Cilantro?
Surprisingly… yes! It’s no secret that our food tastes and preferences change as we grow. Think about how much you used to hate vegetables as a kid, and now happily heap them onto your plate at every meal (well… most of us do.)
The more we eat and are exposed to different flavors and cuisines, the more likely we are to enjoy them, which is why children are often said to ‘grow out’ of fussiness, as their taste buds ‘develop’ - which is code for gradually dulling over time.
Like a lot of other strange things humans do, the dislike of cilantro and other strong flavors could be linked to our ancestors, the very first people of Earth. Our natural response to foods is actually an evolutionary tactic to avoid being poisoned!
You see, thousands or millions of years ago, our ancient family members would forage the woods for random things to eat, working solely from trial and error. Over time, they learned that foods with a sweet taste were “safe” to eat.
However, anything with a bitter taste profile often resulted in an upset stomach at the very least, and death as the worst possible option. Now, cilantro has a pretty bitter taste the first time you eat it, or kind of metallic, like sucking on a copper penny.
Therefore, your initial response to cilantro may well be: yuck! Spit that out! An additional few taste tests might also lead to that reaction. But the more you try it, the more acclimated to the taste you’ll become; eventually, you may actually enjoy it!
Think about it like caviar - it’s essentially fish eggs, and most people are repulsed by it. But richer folk tend to ADORE caviar, because they have eaten it a lot of times and are therefore used to the richer, more complex tastes it produces.
To help yourself on your journey to liking cilantro (or any food, really) - try crushing it up before you introduce it to your recipe. Research indicates that the crushing process leads to the release of an enzyme that minimizes the aldehyde present.
Plus, if you add it as an ingredient to something with a strong flavor that you’re already a fan of, you’ll be able to somewhat disguise the majority of the taste, whilst gradually getting used to it. A win-win situation!
Are There Benefits To Eating Cilantro?
Well, yes, but you don’t need to force yourself to eat it in order to reap the benefits! There are plenty of other foods offering the same vitamins, minerals and biological effects. That being said, let’s talk about why cilantro is good for you.
Certain studies (albeit performed on animals, not humans) have indicated that cilantro - more specifically, coriander seeds, oils or extracts - are GREAT at lowering your blood sugar.
So much so that those with a naturally low blood sugar level should avoid eating too much, as it could lead to adverse effects. This is as a result of its ability to promote your body’s production of enzymes that strip the blood of sugar naturally.
Other research (also performed on animals and in test tubes) appears to suggest that cilantro works well at lowering cholesterol levels; high cholesterol is associated with heart disease and is a significant risk factor, so introducing some of this herb into your diet certainly isn’t going to hurt!
You can also find plenty of antioxidants in cilantro, which are said to have properties that serve to boost our immune systems, fight against pain and inflammation and prevent further damage to our cells. These are most important in the fight against cancer, though don’t mistake eating some cilantro for a miracle cure.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cilantro has a lot of anti-inflammatory properties; diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Dementia are all somewhat associated with inflammation.
It stands to reason, then, that adding a bit of cilantro to your meals here and there could have the potential to keep your mind that bit more active for longer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use celery instead of cilantro?
Yes, you can certainly use celery (both leaves and seeds) in place of cilantro. The taste is not exactly the same but it does make a good substitute if you are out of cilantro and need to replace it quickly.
Simply use one teaspoon of celery seeds or leaves for one teaspoon of cilantro. If you find that the flavor is too mild then an extra quarter of a teaspoon of celery can be added.
Bear in mind that celery may be best kept for replacing cilantro in cooked dishes rather than for use as a garnish. It works especially well in the place of cilantro in soups, stews, casseroles, and cooked meat dishes.
Both are known for their fragrant flavors, with celery having a more peppery taste than cilantro which is a little more fresh and mild in comparison.
Is coriander the same as cilantro?
Yes, coriander and cilantro are both the same. The difference and confusion come when you consider the fact that in the United States, cilantro is the name given to the fresh leaves of the cilantro plant, along with the stalks of it too. The seeds of the plant when dried are then referred to as coriander seeds which can get confusing.
However, elsewhere in the world, the word cilantro is not used as commonly. The whole plant, whether fresh or dried, seeds or leaves is simply referred to as coriander.
The seeds when used alone are called coriander seeds. You may even find that some places around the world use the words cilantro and coriander synonymously, hence the confusion.
If your recipe calls for coriander (or cilantro for that matter) and you are feeling confused, just know that the two words are often used interchangeably and both refer to the same thing.
Can your taste for cilantro change?
Yes, your tastes can develop as you age and change. If you disliked a particular food or flavor when you were younger, you may be surprised to find that you like it now.
For example, it is common for a teenager to go off to college hating a particular food but then come back loving it. This can certainly happen with cilantro. It is known to be a divisive flavor, and people tend to either love it or hate it.
However, just because you hated it when you were younger, doesn’t mean you hate it now. It works the other way too. You may have loved it when you were younger but then you may suddenly take a dislike to it. Tastes change often, and so your taste for cilantro can definitely change.
Can I substitute oregano for cilantro?
Oregano is not a common substitute for cilantro. The flavors are very different and they tend to be used in very different dishes and cuisines.
That being said, if you do not mind replacing the cilantro in your dish with something that will not taste similar then you can go ahead and use it if you wish. You may be better off using oregano in conjunction with other herbs such as dill and parsley as a substitute for fresh cilantro.
As a substitute for dried cilantro, oregano is not likely to be a great choice. A better choice would be something with a similar flavor profile such as the aforementioned parsley. Dried parsley works well in place of dried cilantro due to the similar flavors.
Like we said, if you do use oregano, it will not taste the same but can still add a lovely flavor to any dish, especially in Italian cuisine.
Disclaimer - although the above information has been backed by scientific research, do not take it as gospel. There’s nothing to suggest cilantro is curative on its own, and there are many other factors involved in staying healthy. Take care!