Good news, there’s a reason you hate cilantro—and plenty of easy cilantro substitutes you can use in any dish.

By Kimberly Holland
June 25, 2019
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Food preferences bring out fun banter, and that's especially true when it comes to cilantro. Indeed, this light, leafy green herb draws the ire, or sometimes the adoration, of food lovers faster than nearly any other ingredient in the supermarket. While it might be appreciated for the grassy, fragrant hints of delicate citrus it brings to dishes from guacamole to enchiladas, this plant, formally known as Coriandrum sativum, is often derided for what Julia Child once called “a dead taste.” Love it or loathe it, there’s a reason why cilantro draws such passionate feelings, and it’s (almost) all to do with your genes.

The scientific reason you hate cilantro

A study from researchers at Cornell University sought to unearth the pressing question of why some people like cilantro and some people don’t. They surveyed 30,000 people about their preference and then used those results to look for common genetic traits. What they found is that a specific gene—OR6A2—may determine your relationship with cilantro.

This receptor gene is responsible for coding messages from aldehyde chemicals. These chemicals also happen to be found in soap and some bugs. This may be why, anecdotally, some people say that cilantro tastes like soap to them. (And if they knew what bugs tasted like, perhaps they’d also draw that comparison. Let’s hope they don’t.)

You're not alone—here's how many people dislike cilantro

As you can imagine, researchers often have more pressing topics to tend to, but certainly some have looked at this culinary curiosity in the past. The results show that the dislike for the herb may be less common than you imagine, but it’s certainly not an insignificant number.

A study in the journal Flavour found that people form specific geographic regions are more likely to dislike the food. For example, 21 percent of East Asians reported not liking cilantro, as did 17 percent of people of European descent, and 14 percent of people with an African ancestry.

However, just 3 to 7 percent of people from South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East feel this way about cilantro. Of course, cilantro is native to the eastern Mediterranean, which could explain why so few in the Middle East dislike it. Culinary traditions in some of these regions also don’t heavily use the leafy herb, which may mean fewer people are exposed to it in their formative years.

Good news: you can actually train yourself to like cilantro

Reactions to foods are largely born out of previous experiences with foods—and an innate sense of self-preservation that served our ancestors well when they sought food from random plants, twigs, and berries. In other words, when you eat something that’s really sweet, you know it’s likely to be “safe” because other sweet foods you’ve eaten are safe. But bitter isn’t necessarily a “safe” taste. A lot of foods that aren’t great for you are bitter, so your initial reaction to them might be less than flavorful.

That’s also the case for cilantro. The herb can be described as bitter and even metallic for people who aren’t familiar with or don’t appreciate the taste.

Just because your first experience (or the first several dozen) with cilantro wasn’t so stellar doesn’t mean you’ll never grow to appreciate it. If you want to like cilantro, keep trying it. Each new experience with it will change the way the food Is coded in your memory so that you may begin to appreciate it.

To help you get started, consider crushing it before you add it to a food. One study found that this action helps release an enzyme that turns down the amount of aldehyde in the leaves and creates a milder, more appealing taste. Secondly, use it in a dish you know and love. Guacamole or salsa is a great example. Unfamiliar foods may further jade the experience.

Best cilantro substitutes

It’s honestly not the end of the world if you can’t stand cilantro. No, really. Lots of dishes can be made without it, and you’ll never know what you’re missing.

Even in dishes that seem inherently made for cilantro—chimichurri comes to mind—you can experiment with other herbs or just leave the out and spice up the flavor with ingredients like fresh or roasted garlic, red pepper, or flavored oils.

If you have a recipe that calls for dried cilantro or ground coriander seeds (this is the seed of the cilantro plant), these substitutes may work:

  • Cumin: In Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern dishes, cumin frequently goes hand in hand with coriander. The nutty, spicy notes of this ground seed are at home in everything from guacamole to seasoned beef for tacos.
  • Curry Powder: This spice mix contains several types of dried herbs and spices, including coriander, ginger, turmeric, and chili. The depth of flavor can fill in for coriander alone in any dish—it’s especially great in soups and marinades—and the other flavors may cover up any errant tastes you pick up.
  • Caraway: Caraway and coriander are almost interchangeable. Their flavor profiles are so similar, you can use it easily any place you’re supposed to use coriander. The flavor is a bit sweeter, however, so it’s especially good in marinades and spice rubs where roasting or grilling amplifies the flavor.

Fresh cilantro is prized for its zippy citrus tang and grassy freshness. If you need a good cilantro substitute, look for these fresh herbs instead:

  • Basil: Cilantro pesto is incredibly delicious, but you may be familiar with its close cousin, basil pesto. Though basil is sweeter than cilantro, they both add a bit of zip to any dish that calls for them. Thai basil, which you may have to find at your local farmers’ market, even has an edge of spice that’s welcome in dishes like curries and stir-fries.
  • Parsley: Grassy and green, parsley is a very close cousin to cilantro. (They’re often mistaken for one another in the supermarket.) Though parsley is more bitter, it brings out a lot of freshness in other ingredients, like vegetables and fruits. To get a zip of citrus, which parsley lacks, add some lemon or lime juice to the dish.
  • Dill: Cilantro and dill look nothing alike and their flavors are quite distinctive, but dill imparts interesting notes in everything from cold soups to potato salad. Use just a little; it’s quite potent. Add more if it’s not vibrant enough.
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