This is part 2 of the series, Food for Thought (And for Eating), about science in the kitchen

Check out the recipes for cilantro-lime salmon cakes and cilantro-lime martinis that accompany this post.

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.

The three compounds shown here belong to a class of compounds called aldehydes and make up roughly half of cilantro extract. Because they evaporate and disperse easily, aldehydes are commonly used in perfumes as well.

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.

Further Reading

  10 Responses to “In Defense of Cilantro”

  1. My vote: cilantro is delicious, especially raw in salads.

  2. thanks for posting, I always wondered why my roommate would not even let me keep it in the house she thought it smelled so bad

  3. Citrusy? Delicious?? I’m firmly on the “I hate cilantro!” side. For me the smell is musty, mousy and disgusting, and the taste is worse: a mere trace amount in a dish ruins it; I even hate breathing the odor as I pass fresh bunches in the store. Obviously it clashes with my personal chemistry, but I just don’t understand how anyone could possibly enjoy it.

  4. Love it! But I want a way to preserve its flavor.

  5. I normally like cilantro if it is fresh, and the sprigs/leaves are young. I grow it to use as a garnish. Something that I’ve noticed regarding the smell and taste of the older leaves (i.e. going to seed) is that there is a disturbing similarity to the smell of stink bugs, which I find repulsive. Perhaps it depends on the state of maturity, or “ripeness” of the plant, which may effect the balance of chemical compounds?

    • Just found out something interesting. Stink bug compounds are 8-carbon and 10-carbon aldehydes; while cilantro contains a 12-carbon aldehyde. Similar, but different molecules. Aldehydes are used in the food and cosmetic industry to impart smell or flavor. The trend is that shorter carbon length aldehydes smell bad: e.g. Formaldehyde, while the longer carbon chain length aldehydes smell good. It could be that these aldehydes in cilantro and stink bugs fall into an intermediate zone of chain length, such that they could be perceived differently by different people due to genetic variability in olfactory receptors.

  6. My friend who is a registered dietitian informed me that people who hate the taste of cilantro are missing an enzyme so it tastes like medicine to them.

  7. i really thought you would be more specific in the chemical breakdown of cilantro….oh well
    I love it all the same

  8. I like the taste of a little cilantro. However, I’m allergic to almost all things citrus. That’s how I ended up here. I was having an allergic response to something but didn’t know what it could have been,

    Then I remembered I’d just bought a bottle of dried cilantro from the spice shelf and used it in some homemade soup.

    Sure enough, you revealed that cilantro has a citrus note to it. So it is prime suspect #1 for me. LOL

    Meanwhile, I’m on the side of those who love cilantro. Those volatile oils can have powerful healing effects for those who enjoy it in the way you suggest using it.

  9. I’m a hater. It’s true that if it is pulverized, I can no longer detect the offensive aldehydes. But what’s left is a total absence of flavor. Not only can I detect the aldehydes, but I cannot detect the supposedly beneficial flavanoids.

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