Cilantro is like soccer: 30 years ago, it held almost no interest for Americans. However, as cuisines from Mexico and points south, as well as from Asia, became commonplace, cilantro found a place in American spice racks. Happily, it also found its place in our gardens, and it’s one of the easiest plants to grow!
Cilantro in Cooking
I first encountered cilantro in Thai food. A curry dish I’d ordered at a restaurant tasted as if the chef had spilled soap into it. Curiously, I didn’t hate the soapiness and had several more Thai meals where I noticed it. After four or five such experiences, cilantro stopped tasting soapy to me and simply tasted awesome. (For more about soapy-tasting cilantro, see the box titled Do You Taste Soap?)
Cilantro is very common in salsa; I double or triple the called-for amount when I can my own. You can taste cilantro in good Mexican tomato sauces and in all kinds of curry dishes from every corner of Asia. If you sat through the credits of the movie Bend It Like Beckham, you learned to add different parts of the cilantro plant to the pot at different points while cooking curry.
Forget Cilantro. How About Coriander?
Cilantro stems taste different from cilantro leaves and can add texture to a dish. The light feathery leaves of a mature cilantro plant taste different from the larger broad leaves of a young plant. Let all that go, and cilantro plants will flower and go to seed… and the seeds are coriander.
Coriander is a common ingredient in curry but it provides a completely different flavor than cilantro. Fresh cilantro can brighten a curry’s flavor, while coriander tends to make a curry richer or earthier.
Cilantro in the Garden
Cilantro likes sunlight but it will grudgingly accept morning or afternoon shade. Plant seeds ¼ inch deep as soon as you can work the soil in spring. Seed packages might tell you to space seeds 12” apart or thin seedlings to 12 inches, but don’t sweat it. I space seeds within an inch or two of each other and thinning becomes a byproduct of harvesting.
Cilantro grows in nearly any type of soil, though it’s least happy in clay. Mix compost into the first several inches of soil when you set seeds, and that should be adequate nutrition for your plants to mature. Keep the soil moist until sprouts appear, which may take as long as 20 days.
The greatest challenge to having adequate cilantro through the season is the plant’s lifespan. It’s an annual not because it freezes off in winter, but rather because plants simply die after they go to seed.
Cilantro thrives in cool air, but like lettuce and spinach, it matures very quickly in the heat of summer. Grow varieties that claim heat-tolerance for the most reliable production, but to ensure the best crop stage modest plantings every 15 to 20 days through the summer. Set the last seeds about 40 days before frost and the young plants will likely winter over. I’ve harvested green, perky cilantro leaves in snow in January (in zone 6). Better still: established plants perk up as the ground thaws and are among the first producers next season.
From Garden to Kitchen
Harvest cilantro by breaking off leaf stems where they attach to larger stems. Or, harvest individual leaves, depending on the size of your plants. You can start harvesting when plants have about five leaves. To prolong a plant’s productivity, break off any flower stalks that develop… that is, until the plant puts out feathery foliage instead of broad, flat leaves. Then let the plant flower and go to seed.
If you simply leave the plants alone, they’ll re-seed and provide a late-season harvest. However, watch the green balls that develop after petals drop. As soon as they turn brown, harvest them to use as coriander… or let them dry longer—until they fall off their stems when you bump them—and collect them to plant in the spring.
Shop enough seed catalogs and websites and you’ll find more than three dozen varieties of cilantro, but if you shop at a local garden center or department store, you’re likely to find one or two heat-tolerant varieties. Calypso, Long Lasting, Slow Bolt, and Santo are common. Unless you’re looking for something exotic, whatever seeds you buy locally will be fine—especially if you go with multiple, staggered plantings.
Long-Term Cilantro Stores
Cilantro dehydrates easily, so grow extra to refill your spice jar sometime during the growing season. But don’t settle for dried cilantro in your off-season creations. You can add summer-fresh cilantro flavor year-round if you grow a few dozen extra plants and use them to make cilantro ice cubes.
To pack a whole lot of cilantro flavor into a little freezer space, harvest a large bunch of leaves and stems and puree them in a blender with barely enough water to help them liquefy. Fill an ice cube tray (or trays) with the unattractive slurry, freeze them, pop them into a zipper-topped bag or an air-tight freezer container, and return them to your freezer. One cube is enough to season a curry dish, a salad, sauce for enchiladas, or just about any other dish that calls for cilantro. The flavor is indistinguishable from that of fresh cilantro.
I use cilantro when I make guacamole, and I posted about here: Guacamole from Your Small Kitchen Garden.