How to Grow, Harvest and Use Cilantro

Take advantage of culinary and healthful benefits when you learn how to grow cilantro.

| January/February 2015

  • The cilantro plant yields two distinct flavors: one from the fresh cilantro leaves and one from the spice coriander, its dried fruit.
    Photo by iStock

If you don’t have cilantro growing in your herb garden, it may be time to carve out space for this flavorful annual. After all, it’s a key ingredient in cuisine from almost every continent and it yields two delicious yet entirely unique flavors: one from the leaves and one from the dried fruit (more commonly referred to as coriander seeds). While the entire plant is often referred to as coriander, this article will refer to cilantro for the leaves and stalks, and coriander for the dried, seedlike fruit.

A Brief History of Cilantro

Cilantro originally grew wild across southern Europe and eastern Asia and has been eaten for thousands of years. References to cilantro and coriander are found in ancient texts from China, Rome, Egypt and India, as well as in the Bible. Ancient Egyptians even believed cilantro could travel across dimensions into the afterlife where it could be used as food for the departed. It was introduced to North America by early British settlers in the 17th century.

Growing Cilantro

Cilantro is a relative of parsley, but unlike perennial parsley, cilantro is an annual. It’s hardy and easy to grow from seed (generally cilantro grows better from seed than as a transplant). If you’re interested in cilantro leaves and stems, it’s best to grow it in a sunny location with partial shade—after the last frost if planting outdoors. However, if you want the plant to go to seed (to harvest coriander), choose a location with full sun. Sow seeds about 1⁄2-inch deep and allow a few inches between seeds. For a continuous supply, sow additional seeds every two weeks for a month or two. Keep in mind that most cilantro bolts at the first heat of summer, causing it to flower prematurely. If you live in a climate with hot summers, it’s best to choose a variety that is heat-tolerant such as ‘Calypso’, ‘Leisure’, ‘Santo’ or ‘Slo-Bolt’, or if possible to grow cilantro in a cooler spot in your garden such as in semi-shade. Cilantro can also do well grown indoors in containers and needs moderate amounts of watering and minimal organic fertilizer as well as some direct sunlight. A south-facing window tends to work well.

Harvesting and Using Cilantro

Once cilantro grows leaves (usually by early summer), up to one-third of the plant’s leaves can be harvested as needed. As the plant grows larger, harvest stems and leaves. The stems have the same flavor as the leaves and can be used the same way. If you want coriander seeds, you’ll need to wait until the plant sends up a long stalk, flowers, then turns to seed—usually by late summer. I find it easiest to harvest the seeds by waiting until they turn brown on the plant, cutting the plant from the base and shaking them upside down over a wide bowl or in a paper bag to catch the falling seeds. Store the seeds in an airtight jar and use in soups, stews, salad dressings and curries for the next year or so. You can sauté them whole in a small amount of oil to bring out the flavor and to soften them before adding other ingredients, or grind them to a fine powder and add as desired to your recipe.

Cilantro truly is an international herb. Fans of Mexican and Tex-Mex food will be familiar with the generous use of cilantro in many dishes, including salsa and guacamole. Indian cuisine is chock-full of both the leaves and the seeds. You’ll also find cilantro in many Thai dishes, as well as in authentic Chinese foods.

All parts of the plant, including the root, are edible, but most recipes call for the leaves or the seeds. Cilantro tastes great cooked in dishes such as curries, but the leaves also work as a garnish or salad ingredient, similar to parsley. Because its delicate flavor can be damaged by heat, cilantro is typically added at the end of cooking or to garnish a dish. Coriander seeds are generally used in cooked dishes and are often ground like peppercorns before they are added to recipes.

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