Grow Great Cilantro

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Growing cilantro from seed is best done in the garden (you may want to look for bolt-resistant seeds) as starting it inside for later transplant is not recommended
  • You can grow, harvest and preserve cilantro like a pro with a few simple tips, such as planting them in shade in the hottest geographical areas, giving them plenty of water and freezing them to preserve the fresh cilantro flavor
  • Whether you wash cilantro before refrigerating it or waiting until you use it, keeping it dry during storage is key. Gently shake it free of excess moisture, wrap it loosely in a dry paper towel and place it in a plastic bag to keep it longer

By Dr. Mercola

From 207 B.C. to 220 A.D., China's Han dynasty used cilantro and coriander in part because they thought it would make them immortal. The herb was used by the Greek and Roman physicians, including Hippocrates, who made medicine from different parts of the plant. Naturally, it was also used as a spice. The fact that it was added to a vinegar used to preserve meat is an indication of its potency.

Like other herbs, cilantro's shiny, scalloped leaves contain its share of potent compounds that give it multiple health benefits. Clinical studies have found it to be antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and disinfectant, the most prolific of these being:

  • Antioxidant polyphenolic flavonoids like quercetin, kaempferol, rhamnetin and apigenin
  • Minerals like potassium, iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium
  • Vitamins A, C and K, as well as B vitamins

If someone asked you to name the top five most important ingredients in Mexican or Thai cooking, cilantro would probably be on the list. It's the quintessential herb for such dishes as gazpacho, enchiladas and fajitas, and an absolute necessity if you're making salsa, whether you like the tomato- and jalapeno-based kind or the slightly sweeter recipe using peaches and mangoes.

Avocado is one pairing with cilantro that seems like a match made in heaven, but its love affair with tomatoes take the prize. A few teaspoons of chopped cilantro on a plate of  quick-grilled cherry tomatoes with creamy mozzarella cheese drizzled with olive oil is something like a religious experience. Then there's lime, which goes well with cilantro when it comes to enhancing the flavor.

Thai cuisine makes wonderful use of this pungent plant, resulting in what most Thai aficionados will tell you is the difference between "good" and "fantastic." Pad Thai, one of the genre's most popular dishes, combines the herb with rice noodles, chicken or tofu, fish sauce, garlic and ginger, the cilantro adding a tweak of citrus-like brightness.

Mother Earth News suggests chopping peanuts and cilantro together as a topping for such dishes, or for Oriental dipping sauce, but the roots have culinary use as well. In Southeast Asia, they're dug up, scrubbed, chopped and added to pickled condiments.

Cilantro and Coriander — What's the Difference?

Depending on where you are in the world, you may refer to the leaves of this herb as cilantro and the seeds as coriander — or just the opposite. Generally, the former is correct; however, others believe the difference between the two depends on the life cycle of the herb. What's Cooking America observes:

"Cilantro, Coriandrum sativum, describes the first or vegetative stage of the plant's life cycle. After the plant flowers and develops seeds, it is referred to as coriander. Cilantro (sih-LAHN-troh) is the Spanish word for coriander leaves. It is also sometimes called Chinese or Mexican parsley."1

There's another difference, too, and it has to do with whether you love the herb, or not so much. Some have described the taste of cilantro leaves as reminiscent of soap; others don't get that descriptor at all. Some who don't care for the leaves don't mind the taste of the tiny round seeds, which Mother Earth News says "taste of sage and lemon or orange peel, and season many traditional Indian dishes, especially curries."2

The fragrance of cilantro is definitely unique, and explains its name, which in the original Greek means "bedbug," but when the seeds begin to mature, the strong smell dissipates.

Unlike many herbs, cilantro is an annual, meaning it must be planted rather than appearing voluntarily every year like perennials (usually) do. It grows best in cool weather; it doesn't mind more sun during the spring and fall, but in warmer climates, it should be planted in areas of partial shade, if possible, and the plants kept moist, especially during the warmest seasons.

Growing Cilantro Like a Pro

Cilantro, a member of the carrot and parsley family, has a verdant, fern-like appearance, which is easy to harvest. The more mature it is, the more feathery it appears, but it tastes best when it's more flat than feathery. Its fanlike leaves are easy to chop to add to dishes.

How to get your cilantro to that point is surprisingly easy when you start with seeds straight into the garden, one-half inch deep in easily drained soil in a sunny spot (or shady in a particularly hot climate), and after the last hard frost if possible. Growing inside for later transplant into the soil outside is not recommended. However, you can also grow cilantro in pots to place in a sunny window, patio or porch. Just make sure the pots have good drainage.

Here's a tip many gardeners swear by: splitting half your seed. That's right — just using your thumbnail against your palm, or a sharp knife on a cutting board, you can split the little round seeds and plant them along with whole seeds if you'd like. Many gardeners swear by the technique, according to Organic Authority,3 saying it encourages germination.

The Spruce4 suggests two superior seed varieties: Santo and Marino are full of flavor and slow to bolt, aka "go to seed," which cilantro can do rather quickly when the days get longer and the temperature soars. Because cilantro is an early bolter, you may want to look for other varieties labeled "bolt resistant." Festival, known to grow quickly, has large leaves and winters well in hardiness zones 8 and 9.5

Once the seedlings pop up, thin them to stand about 4 inches apart, although the plants don't actually last long enough to become crowded. Cilantro usually grows to between 6 and 10 inches in height and, like many other herbs, harvesting the leaves encourages plants to spread; most varieties reach 4 to 10 inches in width.

Something to note is that over-fertilization may release too much nitrogen into the soil, which can diminish the vibrance of the flavor. However, you can expect problems like pests or diseases to be practically nonexistent when it comes to growing cilantro. Even deer don't munch it. One thing cilantro loves is rich organic matter, which can consist of broken down and decayed leaves, compost and animal manure to improve the soil. The Spruce notes:

"Organic matter contains acids that can make plant roots more permeable, improving their uptake of water and nutrients, and it can dissolve minerals within the soil, leaving them available for plant roots. Organic matter improves the quality of your garden soil and helps to keep your garden in balance with nature. You can add it as an amendment and work it into your soil or take the easier route and use it to mulch you garden. It will eventually work itself into the soil."6

Caring for and Harvesting Your Cilantro

Pinch off stems toward the upper part of the plant, but even if the plant should begin producing pale mauve-colored flowers (indicating that the leaves will produce a slightly more bitter flavor), even those are edible; try using them in a salad. The blossoms are also excellent at attracting desirable bees and other pollinating critters to your garden.

You're generally able to begin harvesting in 50 to 55 days (which you might want to write on your plant markers, along with the date the seeds were planted as a reference). To mature and dry properly, seed production takes about 100 days. You'll note that when you plant a patch or row of cilantro, every plant tends to reach its peak all at the same time. You no sooner get started with harvesting, it seems, than it begins to bolt.

You can circumvent this by planting smaller amounts at two-week intervals throughout the season to prolong the harvest. Whether you cut cilantro from your garden or purchase it in gathered bunches from the produce section of most grocery stores, it will last for several days, especially if you wrap them loosely in a dry paper towel to wick off any moisture before refrigerating it. Here's a  hint passed along by Rodale's Organic Life:

"The seeds ripen and scatter quickly, so cut the entire plant as soon as the leaves and flowers turn brown. Tie the plants in bundles and hang them upside down with a paper bag tied securely around the flowerheads to catch the seeds as they dry."7

If they're soaking wet, gently shake off the excess moisture and wrap them in a dry paper towel. Whether you wash cilantro before refrigerating it or waiting until you use it, keeping it dry in storage is key. Another storage method is placing the cut ends in a glass of water in the refrigerator, again, covered loosely with a plastic bag. Mother Earth News notes:

"You also can freeze leaves that have been rinsed and patted dry. When frozen, cilantro leaves retain much of their flavor; when dried, leaves lose flavor. Store dry coriander seeds whole, in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place; they will keep for more than a year."8

Freezing Cilantro (and Other Herbs)

When freezing herbs like cilantro, which is a good preservation technique for herbs with a high water content, you'll want to use the leaves when they're at their freshest and most flavorful (harvested in the morning when they're still dewy, if possible). They may become limp, but still retain their flavor for several months. Here's the drill for freezing cilantro whole:

  1. Use paper towels to pat them dry (although completely dry is not necessary).
  2. Spread leaves on a baking sheet or other flat surface individually so they don't stick together.
  3. Cover with waxed paper (freezing plastic wrap isn't recommended) to keep them clean and to prevent them from falling off the tray.
  4. When they're frozen solid, remove them from the tray, place them in airtight containers and return to the freezer. Once they're frozen they no longer stick together.
  5. Label the containers and include the date.

If you'd like to freeze cilantro for later use in cooking, doing so in ice cube trays is an innovative method. Just pop a few into cilantro cubes into your soups and stews.

  1. Again, use the freshest cilantro leaves. Wash if needed and pat dry, but because you'll be placing them in water anyway, they don't have to be bone dry; patting them down helps prevent a watery mess on the counter.
  2. Stuff two to three individual leaves or a spoonful of chopped cilantro into each tray pocket. (You don't have to be gentle, crushing them a bit releases their oil, which freezes along with the leaves.)
  3. Fill each pocket with water, covering every bit possible. Floaters are dealt with when you allow them to freeze partially; fill the tray again to completely cover them and replace into the freezer.
  4. Once frozen, the cilantro-infused cubes can be removed from their trays, placed in airtight containers and put back into the freezer.

When cooking with chopped cilantro, add it toward the end. Coriander seeds aren't adversely effected by heat. They can actually be roasted in a dry skillet until they take on a nutty aroma, which is delicious and adds a nice texture when they're crushed and used in curries and dips.

In addition to the cilantro leaves having medicinal uses as far back as Babylon, the seeds were used as a confectionery seasoning and spice, and coriander seed oil has a multitude of uses, both in the kitchen and as a medicinal for athlete's foot, as a pain reliever and antibacterial, among other things, due to the linalool content.

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