This is part 2 of the series, Food for Thought (And for Eating), about science in the kitchen
Recently cilantro has been taking a lot of flak from what I believe to be a small but vocal minority of cilantro haters. This anti-cilantro crowd feels that the herb has a repellent taste – they often compare its flavor to soap or metal. In extreme cases the smell of cilantro has been equated with the smell of insects. There’s even an entire blog, I Hate Cilantro, that’s solely dedicated to hating on cilantro. However, I’m firmly pro-cilantro and believe that it improves the flavor of everything it touches. So I thought I’d get to the bottom of some of the science behind cilantro’s flavor.
Cilantro, consisting of the stems and leaves of the coriander plant, looks a lot like parsley, but has its own distinct flavor. Each small leaf packs an explosion of fresh, zesty, citrusy flavor. Coriander seeds have a similar but less intense flavor and are commonly used as a spice. Cilantro is used as a seasoning in food all over the world, from Southeast Asia and Africa to the Mediterranean and Latin America. In fact, Northern Europe and North America are some of the only regions where cilantro is not widely used, which may help explain why cilantro haters seem to be concentrated in these areas.
In pursuit of the chemical source of cilantro’s intense flavor, chemists have detected over 40 distinct compounds in fresh cilantro extract. This complex chemical mixture accounts for the bulk of cilantro’s flavor and is mainly composed of volatile organic compounds, meaning small, carbon-based compounds that easily evaporate when exposed to air. The volatility of these compounds not only means that fresh cilantro is particularly fragrant, but also that cilantro’s flavor changes when it is cooked, crushed, or pureed, as these compounds escape into the air. This is why cilantro pesto is much milder than fresh cilantro and why it’s best to add fresh, raw cilantro last when using it in a cooked dish (unless you’re looking for a milder flavor).
Beyond, of course, making themselves taste delicious, coriander plants produce all of these chemicals for a reason: to ward off unwanted pests. Some of these chemicals have been shown to deter fungus and insects (and even some humans). Some are also antioxidants. Because of its antifungal and antioxidant properties, cilantro extract has been investigated as a natural preservative in other foods. So cilantro is not only delicious but also nutritious and may help naturally prevent food spoilage.
So which side of the cilantro debate do you fall on? Can’t get enough of it? Think it belongs on the floor, not in your food? Weigh in below in the comments section.
- A New York Times column by Harold McGee of the Curious Cook about why some find the taste of cilantro so off-putting
- Read about the chemical composition of cilantro extract (PDF)
- International Journal of Food Microbiology. Volume 74, Issues 1-2, March 2002, pp. 101-109
- Food Chemistry. Volume 97, Issue 3, August 2006, pp. 505-515