What Is Coriander?

Plucked coriander leaves on table

Halfdark/Getty Images

As a spice, the lemony and floral flavor of coriander finds its way into the many Asian, Latin, and Indian dishes, as well as European cuisine. While the leaves of the coriander plant are an herb known as cilantro or Chinese parsley, the round seeds are used to make coriander spice. This spice is found in the Indian spice mixture garam masala, which is used in many savory dishes.

What Is Coriander?

Coriander is a spice produced from the round, tan-colored seeds of the coriander plant (Coriandrum sativum), which is a member of the parsley family. The word coriander can be used to describe the entire plant: leaves, stems, seeds, and all. But when speaking of coriander, most people are referring to the spice produced from the seeds of the plant. The leaves of the plant are commonly called cilantro, which comes from the Spanish word for coriander, or Chinese parsley. Coriander roots also appear in culinary use as a pungent addition to Thai curries. Coriander grows as a native plant around the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa and in the Americas. 

Origins

Little is known about the origins of the coriander plant, although it is generally thought to be native to the Mediterranean and parts of southwestern Europe. Experts believe its use dates back to at least 5,000 B.C. References to coriander can be found in Sanskrit writings, and the seeds were placed in Egyptian tombs. Coriander even rates a mention in the Old Testament, in which the manna provided to the Jews fleeing Egypt was described as being like coriander seed. Coriander was one of the first herbs grown by the American colonists of Massachusetts. And seventeenth century Frenchmen used distilled coriander to make a type of liquor. Today, cilantro is cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries throughout the world, and the herb is used worldwide.

What Does It Taste Like?

Coriander seeds have a pleasing lemony flavor and floral aroma. The flavor goes very well with cumin and many recipes include equal amounts of the two spices. The plant's leaves and the ripened seeds taste completely different and they cannot be substituted for each other. Fresh cilantro tastes pungent, and to a certain percentage of the population, it tastes soapy.

Cooking With Coriander

The whole seeds are sometimes used in pickling and brining. Coriander seeds are usually toasted and ground before using; otherwise, they can have a tough texture to chew. Ground coriander is used as a spice in dishes like curry and in baked goods. Dry roast them in a pan or in the oven at a low temperature, then use a spice grinder to produce the ground coriander.

Do be sure to read recipes carefully. If it calls for a bunch of coriander or directs you to chop the coriander and discard the stems, it is referring to the fresh cilantro leaves rather coriander seeds.

Recipes With Coriander

Ground coriander can be found in soups, stews, and vegetable and meat dishes. It is part of many traditional spice blends in Indian, Middle Eastern, and African cuisines.

Substitutions

If you don't have coriander seed available, replace it with an equal amount of caraway seedscuminfennel or a combination of the three. When converting between whole seeds and ground, replace every teaspoon of coriander seed with 3/4 teaspoon of ground coriander.

Where to Buy Coriander

You can find whole and ground coriander in the spice section of the supermarket. If you don't use it often, it's good to buy the whole seeds and then toast and grind them immediately before use to get the best flavor. The ground spice loses its potency quickly. When buying in bulk or at an international market, check to see if the seeds should be washed before storage. After washing, they can be dried in the sun or in the oven at a low temperature.

When purchasing cilantro, check for leaves that have a bright green color with no yellow spots, and no evidence of wilting.

Gardening buffs might want to consider growing their own coriander plants. A hardy annual that thrives in loamy soil in direct sunlight, coriander should be planted at the same time that you would plant parsley in your particular area. You will be able to harvest the seeds as well as to use the fresh leaves.

Storage

Store coriander seeds and ground coriander in airtight containers away from light and heat.

Fresh cilantro doesn't last long, and you'll need to store it in the refrigerator. One method is to put the cilantro in an air-filled, securely closed plastic bag in the vegetable crisper section of your refrigerator.

Health Benefits of Coriander

Coriander has been used in traditional medicine for stomach ailments. It is sometimes included in teas that are designed to help relieve constipation. Research is being done to see if it has any verified health benefits for conditions such as diabetes. Fresh cilantro greens provide fiber and phytonutrients, while the seeds have a small amount of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus.