Explore the culinary uses of cilantro. We share harvesting, preparation, and storage methods for cooking with cilantro plus some popular recipes that highlight this spicy herb.
Cilantro has long been used, especially in Mexican cooking, to spice up a variety of vegetables, rice, fish, and meat dishes. Often cilantro is paired with lime or lemon juice in recipes.
Perhaps it’s best known for lending its distinctive flavor to salsa. But there are many other possibilities. Read on to explore a few of these.
Table of Contents
How to Cook with Cilantro
Cilantro’s spicy flavor is best when used fresh or frozen. The flavor weakens considerably with drying and with exposure to heat. So the best way to use cilantro is to add it late in the cooking process or chopped fresh overcooked dishes.
Preparing Cilantro for Cooking
Harvest whole leaves of cilantro from the outside of the plant, or cut off whole plants when they are 4 to 6 inches high. For ideal flavor, harvest after the dew is dry but before the full heat of the day.
Swish cilantro leaves in water to remove dirt and let them sit in the water long enough for dirt and foreign objects to sink while the clean leaves remain at the top. Then spin or pat it dry before using.
Cilantro has a powerful aroma, which can be hard to wash from your hands. You may want to use gloves when cooking with cilantro unless you want to keep smelling its perfume for some hours after leaving the kitchen.
You can store fresh cilantro in the refrigerator for up to a week. Put branches in a jar of water, as if they were flowers in a bouquet. Cover with a plastic bag. Change the water every other day.
If you need to preserve cilantro for the long haul, freeze it. Clean it as above, then place it in a freezer bag with a little air for cushioning.
When you’re ready to use it in your cooking, open the bag and hit it with your hand. The ice crystals in the leaves will burst, chopping your cilantro for you.
More Ways To Use Cilantro In The Kitchen
Some of the most popular culinary uses of cilantro are in fresh salsa, served with rice, or added as a complement to marinades and dressings.
Making Salsa with Cilantro
Cilantro provides part of the distinctive flavor of classic salsa. There are many salsa recipes, and if you’re planning to eat your salsa fresh, you can adjust them freely.
The basic ingredients for making salsa are tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, onions, garlic, acid, and spices. The acid may be lemon or lime juice, or else vinegar. Traditional spices include cilantro, oregano, cumin, and black pepper.
If you plan to can or freeze your salsa, don’t adjust the recipe in ways that lower the acidity. Acidity is part of what preserves your canned goods and prevents the growth of pathogens. Here are a few suggestions to keep the acidity levels intact.
- Do not reduce the amounts of vinegar and lemon juice.
- Use commercially bottled lemon juice or vinegar with at least 5% acidity.
- Do not increase the amounts of low-acid vegetables (peppers, onions, garlic) or fresh herbs and spices.
- It’s OK to increase the dried spices if any are used in your canning recipes.
The University of Wisconsin recommends canning salsa without fresh herbs. Instead, they recommended adding cilantro just before serving. They say this improves flavor and food safety.
The North Dakoda State University has an excellent recipe for safely canning salsa with cilantro – Canning and Freezing Tomatoes and Making salsa. They also warn against increasing the proportion of fresh cilantro in the recipe. You can also add cilantro to the salsa just before serving.
Adding Cilantro to Rice
Several sources suggest folding fresh chopped cilantro into just-cooked rice along with lemon and/or lime juice, butter, and salt. The proportions of cilantro to rice vary considerably. Here are two examples.
- Cooking With My Favorite Herb Cilantro (scroll halfway down)
- Create Better Health – Cilantro (scroll to bottom)
Cilantro in Salad Dressing
Cilantro dressing adds a zingy, unmistakable flavor to salads. You can make a simple vinaigrette by blending fresh cilantro, salt, and garlic into a mix of olive oil, lime juice, and orange juice.
You can also whisk it into buttermilk along with vinegar, mayonnaise, and other spices for a flavorful ranch dressing This vegan dressing recipe from the Washington Post calls for blending cilantro with silken tofu, oil, vinegar, lime juice, ginger, and salt.
Popular Cilantro Recipes
The LA Times recommends this spicy variant on traditional pesto. Instead of basil, garlic, and pine nuts, this recipe calls for cilantro, scallions, and pumpkin or sesame seeds.
Like many pesto recipes, it calls for adding oil, salt, and lemon or lime juice. It also includes soy sauce, a less usual pairing. Combine ingredients either in a food processor or a mortar and pestle. This recipe is quick to make. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 4 months.
This quick and well-reviewed recipe from the New York Times calls for an unusual combination of fresh herbs– cilantro, mint, and parsley. Add in olive oil, hot pepper, lemon juice, and salt. Toss arugula and lettuce leaves in this seasoning mixture.
This recipe from the North Dakota Extension features ½ cup of chopped cilantro stirred into 4 cups of warm corn, which has already been cooked in a simple cream sauce. Like many cilantro recipes, it suggests cayenne pepper and lime juice in addition to other seasonings.
This sauce from the North Carolina Extension goes well on tacos, salads, and meat dishes. Combine garlic, Greek yogurt, cilantro, lime juice, and avocado in a blender.
This easy recipe from the North Carolina Extension calls for adding cilantro earlier in the cooking process than in most other dishes. Marinade chicken breasts for at least half an hour—preferably overnight—in a mixture of cilantro, lime juice, cayenne, black pepper, and salt. Then bake or pan-fry the chicken.
This simple recipe from the NYT calls for blending cilantro, lemon juice, parsley, garlic, and hot pepper into a sauce to spread over fish before broiling. They suggest red snapper or grouper.
Many readers left favorable reviews of this Washington Post recipe. Fresh cilantro chopped in a food processor is added to a precooked sauce, which includes both sugar and red peppers.
This sauce is then drizzled over salmon (they say that other sorts of fish would be fine, also tofu or chicken. Fish and sauce are served over rice cooked in coconut milk.
Cilantro’s flavor is unique and pronounced, but this flavor can add zest to a wide variety of hot and cold dishes. Use these recipes as a springboard for your own experiments.