There's a reason you hate cilantro—and plenty of easy substitutes you can use in any dish.
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Studio shot, overhead view of coriander bunch on napkin
Credit: Magdalena Niemczyk-ElanArt/Getty Images

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 some appreciate the grassy, fragrant hints of delicate citrus it brings to dishes from guacamole to enchiladas,  cilantro (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 answer the pressing question of why some people like cilantro and some people don't. They surveyed 30,000 people and used the results to look for common genetic traits. Their finding: A specific gene—OR6A2—may determine your relationship with cilantro.

This receptor gene is responsible for coding messages from aldehyde chemicals, which are also found in soap and some bugs. This may be why, anecdotally, some people think that cilantro tastes like soap. (And if they knew what bugs tasted like, perhaps they'd also draw that comparison.)

You're Not Alone—Here's How Many People Dislike Cilantro

You'd think researchers have more pressing topics to tend to, but others have also looked at this culinary curiosity.

A study in the journal Flavour found that people from specific geographic regions are more apt 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 agree with this assessment: They don't have a problem with cilantro. Of course, the herb is native to the eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, their culinary traditions don't make much use of cilantro, so fewer people are probably 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—and an innate sense of self-preservation when our ancestors 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 potentially harmful foods are bitter, so your initial reaction to them might be less than positive.

That's also the case for cilantro—which is often described as bitter and even metallic.

But a negative first experience with cilantro doesn't mean you'll never grow to appreciate it. If you want to like this leafy herb, keep trying it. Each new experience with it will change the way the food is coded in your memory. You may begin to appreciate it.

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, try it in a dish you know and love, perhaps guacamole or salsa. Unfamiliar foods may reinforce the negative experience.

Best Cilantro Substitutes

It's not the end of the world if you can't stand cilantro. Lots of dishes can be made without it, and you'll never know what you're missing.

Even in dishes that seem made for cilantro—chimichurri comes to mind—you can experiment with other herbs, spicing up a recipe with fresh or roasted garlic, red pepper, or flavored oils.

If a recipe 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. To mimic this characteristic, 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.