Dried herbs are valued worldwide as a cupboard essential. However, the taste is often substantially different from the fresh version, to the point that some chefs recommend certain herbs never be used in their dried form.
Today we’re considering the case for dried cilantro vs fresh. Cilantro is among the less common herbs to be found in its dry form – if you’ve never used it before, it’s worth knowing how it compares to fresh stems and stalks.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- All you need to know about cilantro and the coriander plant
- What fresh and dried cilantro taste like, along with coriander seeds
- The best uses of dried cilantro vs fresh
- Cuisines that use this herb
- The infamous “soap” issue
- The facts about buying, drying and storing cilantro at home.
Beloved, controversial, and featured in some of the world’s boldest recipes, there’s plenty to learn about this herb! Let’s dig in.
What is Cilantro?
Cilantro describes the stalks and leaves of the coriander plant. Its name is derived from Spanish, hence its widespread use in North America, where Spanish and Italian names for vegetables and herbs are the norm (see also: zucchini).
In the rest of the Anglosphere, including the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, it’s referred to as coriander, which derives from the Old French name for the plant. It’s also referred to as Chinese parsley (due to its widespread use in East Asian cuisine) and dhania (the Hindi name).
It’s native to much of Asia and some of Europe, although opinion is divided on the plant’s true native habitat. It grows easily in most climates, although it doesn’t tolerate cold winters. The leaves are soft and fragrant, and the stems are somewhat delicate. It looks very similar to some parsley variants when growing.
What Does Cilantro Taste Like?
Surprisingly, this is one of the most controversial questions in the cooking world. We’ll address this controversy later – read on to find out about “the soap issue.”
However, to those who enjoy the taste of cilantro, it has a bold flavor with surprising depth underpinning a taste somewhat like parsley, lemon, and even aniseed. Its distinctive flavor has made it popular in cuisines worldwide, as it’s difficult to find another herb that can mimic such a specific flavor profile.
The taste varies depending on which part of the plant is consumed and whether it’s fresh or dried. We provide a guide below.
Fresh Cilantro Leaves
The leaves are popular as a garnish. They carry the most significant citrus component and are used to “lighten” dishes. They wilt quickly, meaning that they’re most commonly added to dishes right before serving. The vibrant green color provides a pleasing contrast in stews, curries, and soups.
Fresh Cilantro Stems
The thicker parts of cilantro stems are typically used during cooking, as they’re considered slightly too crunchy to work as a garnish. However, this part of the plant is where the deepest flavor lies.
The stems are long and thin and can be sliced into small pieces that melt into a sauce. They carry the same citrus-like flavor as the leaves but blend this with a deeper tartness and a slightly aniseed-like flavor. Aniseed-tasting herbs like star anise and fennel seeds are popular in virtually all cuisines worldwide, which perhaps explains the worldwide popularity of fresh cilantro.
The dried version of the herb uses the leaves and only the finest stalks that can’t easily be separated from the leaves. The thicker stems are discarded (or, better, used fresh in a dish!)
Dried cilantro has a milder flavor profile than fresh. It doesn’t carry quite the same punch or lemony zing as fresh leaves, but the citrus note certainly remains. Interestingly, it acquires some of the deeper, aniseed-like flavors when dried, even though the stalks aren’t used here.
So does the dried herb still taste “like cilantro”? The answer is that while it’s easily identifiable as the same herb, the flavor profile is different enough that it’s a fascinating ingredient in its own right. It’s somewhat like dried basil or parsley in this way; it’s recognizable but wouldn’t be used to give a dish the same “freshness” as a garnish.
It’s worth remembering that there’s more to the coriander plant than the stems and leaves. The seeds are also delicious. They’re most commonly used when dried, but you can even use fresh coriander seeds in cooking – the taste changes subtly as they dry out, becoming deeper and more earthy.
The taste of the seeds is different from the fresh leaves and stalks, though not completely alien. It’s a rich, powerful flavor that may have slight hints of that distinctive citrus and aniseed profile. However, this is combined with a powerful depth that makes coriander seeds and ground coriander powder one of the most popular ingredients in curries and spicy stews.
Speaking of which – let’s get hungry. Let’s talk about the best uses for dried cilantro vs fresh in cooking.
What Do You Use Dried Cilantro vs Fresh For?
Here we’ll cover the best uses for the dried and fresh versions of the herb in some delicious dishes.
Curry is a loose term referring to a spiced stew. In the West, it’s most commonly used to describe South Asian dishes, particularly Indian and Bangladeshi. Thai curry is also increasingly popular in the West, and curry is a staple of Chinese, Japanese, and many other East Asian cuisines.
Cilantro stems are often chopped and used during the cooking process. Coriander seeds and powder are also very common, especially in South Asian dishes. Dried coriander may also be used during cooking to add extra depth and richness to the sauce.
The leaves are typically added right at the end to retain their freshness and vibrant green color. More may be served as a garnish.
Cilantro is a central ingredient in popular Mexican salsa dishes. Salsa Verde and Pico de Gallo both use cilantro leaves as central ingredients, both for the flavor and the distinctive appearance. Fresh cilantro retains its lemony zing but also adds depth to the salsa.
Dried cilantro is almost never used in salsa.
Cilantro leaves can be used to garnish all types of dishes. Anything that could benefit from citrus and mild aniseed notes can be enhanced with a sprinkle of chopped cilantro leaves. This is a fresh-only application.
Cilantro stalks, dried cilantro, and powdered coriander are popular soup ingredients. Carrot and coriander soup is a staple in Western countries and demonstrates how well herb pairs with sweet, earthy vegetables.
Broth & Stock
Vegetable stock can be enhanced with cilantro leaves and stems. The dried version can also be used here, as long as the broth is strained thoroughly after cooking.
Cuisine-specific broths and stocks (such as curry bases for South Asian food) also benefit from fresh cilantro stems. The dried herb may also be used here.
Every part of the plant can be used in stews, depending on when it’s added. Bean stews are often fortified with ground coriander. Dried cilantro should be added at the same point.
The stalks are then added later and cooked out before the leaves are used as a garnish.
Which Cuisines Use Cilantro?
As the herb is very easy to grow and adapts to most conditions, it’s used in numerous cuisines worldwide. However, the use of dried cilantro vs fresh varies depending on the region.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of cuisines that make great use of this herb.
Indian and Bangladeshi cooking incorporates fresh cilantro into a huge variety of dishes. Visit a South Asian supermarket, and you’ll find it sold in huge bunches – fortune favors the brave when cooking with cilantro!
While dried coriander seeds (both whole and powdered) are used heavily in South Asian cooking, dried cilantro isn’t commonly seen.
Mexican cooking includes fresh cilantro stalks and leaves in many dishes. From fresh, vibrant salsas to hearty bean stews, it’s one of the central herbs of Mexican cooking.
There’s also a native variant known as Mexican cilantro or culantro. This has an even more powerful flavor and is worth trying if you can find it!
Bean stews may be augmented with dried cilantro, although you’ll rarely find the dried product called for in recipes.
Cilantro is used heavily in Thai cooking, both to fortify dishes and as a garnish. Dried coriander seeds and powder are common; this is also true in Chinese cooking. Cilantro is a staple of many Chinese dishes, hence its occasional name, “Chinese parsley.”
As with most cuisines, you won’t find many recipes calling for dried cilantro vs fresh in East Asian cooking. The qualities associated with the fresh plant are considered too important to overlook, although fortifying dishes with dried herbs isn’t unheard of.
As with Mexican food, many Middle Eastern cuisines use fresh cilantro leaves in sauces and dips such as zhoug. It’s also commonly used as a garnish; e.g. Lebanese cuisine is legendary for presenting diners with a dazzling array of colors, textures, and flavors in a spread.
The bright green leaves create a beautiful contrast with other items and are augmented by other popular garnishes like lemon and lime juice.
Dried cilantro may be used to season roasted meat. However, dried and powdered coriander seeds are much more common in slow-cooked dishes.
There are very few cuisines that would overlook cilantro entirely. Its key flavors – lemon, aniseed, and its distinct tartness – are among the most common and desirable worldwide. Wherever chefs love to experiment, you’ll find this herb doing good work!
Dried Cilantro vs Fresh and “The Soap Issue”
Most people would agree that there’s plenty to love in the dishes listed above, especially when augmented with cilantro. About 80-90% of people, in fact. The remainder would disagree in no uncertain terms.
This is because of a genetic difference believed to be tied to the cluster OR6A2. This cluster affects the way we experience taste, and for a small percentage of the population, it makes cilantro taste like soap.
Everybody loves a subjective argument, which is why the soap issue is so infamous. It’s impossible to reach an agreement on matters of taste.
Our question is – how does the soap taste compare in dried cilantro vs fresh?
Fresh leaves and stalks are the main offenders. These are extremely unpalatable to those with the soap gene, although stalks that have been cooked thoroughly in a stew may be less offensive.
However, it’s off the table as a garnish. Likewise, in dishes where it’s a major ingredient, like carrot and coriander soup, it may cause 1-2 out of your 10 guests to turn their noses up.
The dried version is less pungent, but as it’s made from the plant’s leaves, it still hits the wrong note. However, when added early in the cooking process to blend with other flavors, it may not be noticeable.
This could be useful when making a bean stew or a curry. While it’s rare for dishes to recommend dried cilantro vs fresh, recipes are most commonly written with the assumption that you’ll like all the ingredients!
The soap issue is mostly confined to the plant’s leaves and stalks. Coriander seeds have a distinct flavor and aren’t typically associated with an unwanted soapy taste.
However, this may vary from person to person. If you’re cooking for someone who you know carries the soap gene, it’s best to ask if they’re okay with coriander seeds or powder before you plan your meal!
Buying, Growing, & Drying Cilantro – All You Need to Know
Assuming you’re one of the many people lucky enough to enjoy this delicious herb, here’s a guide to buying, storing, and even drying it at home!
Buying Dried Cilantro
The dried herb is available in most large supermarkets. It may not be part of an “essential” range in smaller shops, as it’s one of the less common dried herbs.
Store-bought dried cilantro has a smell vaguely reminiscent of the fresh plant. However, like many store-bought dried herbs, it’s not very strong. You may wish to dry your own for a more powerful product.
Buying Fresh Cilantro
Fresh cilantro is sold at most supermarkets. Some shops (especially Asian grocery stores) sell it in huge bunches, which offers great value – just be sure you’ve got a use for it all!
You can also commonly buy cilantro in small pots and take it home. It has the most flavor when harvested fresh, so this is a great idea!
Growing Fresh Cilantro
Cilantro is easy to grow at home. You can propagate stems in a glass of water until they develop small roots before transferring them into seedling pots. Alternatively, simply buy a pot from the store and keep it healthy!
Drying Cilantro At Home
You can dry cilantro by hanging it in bunches in a sterile environment. Once it dries, crumble the leaves away and powder them.
Alternatively, you can dehydrate it in the oven. Put the oven on no more than 200F and leave the door slightly ajar. Place the stalks on a tray and leave them inside. Turn occasionally and then crumble and powder the leaves.
Home-dried cilantro is exponentially more potent than store-bought herbs. While the process may be a hassle, it’s worth it for the flavor.
Storing Fresh Cilantro
If cut, fresh cilantro can be kept in the fridge or in a cool, dry place. It typically lasts for about a week before the leaves start to wilt and go brown.
Storing Dried Cilantro
If you’ve dried the herb at home, store it in an airtight jar that you’ve sterilized using boiling water. It will last for around a year, although it may become less potent over time.
When to Use Fresh Cilantro
Fresh cilantro is part of many of the world’s greatest cuisines. The leaves, stems, and seeds all play a vital role in popular dishes. You can be bold with it, too – don’t just snip a bit off the end! Its unique flavor pairs beautifully with so many dishes.
When a recipe calls for cilantro, it almost always means fresh. Check which part of the plant is specified, as the leaves and stalks have different applications.
When to Use Dried Cilantro
Dried cilantro is less commonly listed in recipe books. That’s not to say it’s not useful. It can fortify dishes and add a wonderful depth of flavor. It’s also a great alternative to get that unique taste without triggering the soap response.
Home-dried herbs are more powerful than store-bought, but no worries if you haven’t got the time. Store-bought will do just fine!
The question of using dried cilantro vs fresh isn’t like any other herb. The fresh flavor is so unique that the two almost can’t be compared, and no other herb has the same controversial profile!
We’d recommend fresh cilantro as a staple. If a recipe suggests it, that’s the best solution because there’s no true substitute. However, you should certainly consider adding the dried version to your store cupboard. It’s affordable, lasts for ages, and has a great flavor.
And hey – who knows when you’ll next be cooking for someone with the soap gene?