Cilantro is known by several different names including Mexican parsley and Chinese parsley and is a member of the carrot family, botanically known as Coriandrum sativum. The plant and leaves are called cilantro in the Americas, while the seeds (used as a spice) are called coriander.
The leaves (which do resemble flat-leaf parsley), stems, and even the root of the cilantro plant are edible. The most common description of the taste by those who do not care for cilantro is that it tastes like soap, but for those who enjoy this strong and pungent flavor describe it as peppery with light citrus accents.
Cilantro's taste is incomparable to any other herb except its cousin, culantro, which does have a similar aroma but is much more pungent in flavor. Coriander, the spicy seed of cilantro, is full of citrus and curry flavor when whole and contains hints of nuttiness when ground.
Tips for Buying Quality Fresh Cilantro
Cilantro is sold fresh by the bunch in the produce section of most markets, but choosing the best cilantro to buy can be difficult if you don't know what to look for. Dried cilantro is available in some markets, but it is pretty much worthless since the flavor and aroma are lost in the drying process.
Frozen cilantro retains its flavor and is a good alternative if fresh cilantro is not on hand. Cilantro should be bright green with no signs of yellowing inside the bunches. Some people have an aversion to the smell of cilantro and compare it to that of bug spray, but if you take a whiff, the smell should be closer to that of mint or parsley.
The stems should be firm and anywhere from four to six inches, though longer is better than shorter; if you were to stand the cilantro on their stems in your hand, they should not bend or they are not as fresh.
Storing Cilantro and Keeping It Fresh
Cilantro can get mushy fairly quickly if left in the produce bag it was purchased in, especially if there's any moisture in the bag or on the leaves, but many people rinse their cilantro in water when they get home and wrap them in paper towels to keep this moisture at bay. This is a good practice, but there's an even better way that prolongs the shelf life of the herb.
To keep cilantro fresh, treat it like you would a flower by putting them in a mason jar with a little water at the bottom, then cover the leaves with a loose-fitting plastic sandwich bag. Since cilantro is a cool-weather crop, this environment is the closest you can get at home to the environment it likes to grow in.
This method could help you preserve your cilantro for up to three weeks. Without it, you're looking at only five to seven days in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Remember, it is an herb and as such needs air and water to stay alive.