Basil and cilantro are two popular culinary herbs in North America, Asia, and many parts of Europe. Both are widely available and have some flavor notes in common. If you are unfamiliar with these herbs or simply want to experiment, it is natural to wonder how basil and cilantro compare. In this SPICEography Showdown, we look at how they stack up.
Table of contents
How does basil differ from cilantro?
Basil and cilantro come from unrelated plant families. Basil comes from the Lamiaceae family, which is the same family to which mint and rosemary belong; cilantro comes from the Apiaceae family, to which parsley and chervil belong. In the garden, basil plants can grow to around 30 inches while cilantro plants peak at approximately 18 inches.
These two herbs also look nothing alike. The most common variety of basil has oval-shaped leaves that are also broad and floppy. Depending on the variety, basil leaves can be green, purple, or variegated. Cilantro’s leaves have three feathery segments that are arranged into a roughly triangular pattern and are only green.
Basil and cilantro have dramatically different flavor profiles. Basil’s flavor profile differs depending on the variety, but most varieties have notes of clove and licorice with a hint of minty herbaceousness. Some of the more exotic varieties may have citrus or cinnamon notes to go with the other flavors. Cilantro’s flavor is mildly grassy with a light citrus note, though many people who dislike its taste perceive it as soapy.
They also have very different nutritional profiles. Basil contains less dietary fiber than cilantro. Cilantro contains more vitamin A and C than basil, which has more vitamin K. Basil also has more calcium and iron.
Basil and cilantro are associated with different food cultures. While basil is used around the world, it is best known for its role in Mediterranean food. Cilantro is also popular in many places, but it is widely perceived as a Latin American herb and particularly important in Mexican food.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
You can use basil in recipes that require cilantro, and it won’t ruin them, but you shouldn’t expect the dishes to taste the same. Sometimes that change of flavor is desired, since cilantro’s flavor is controversial. Some people are genetically predisposed to disliking it and some of those people may find that basil is an effective stand-in. Some varieties of basil may make better cilantro substitutes than others. For example, lemon basil may be better than Genovese basil for some of the raw cilantro applications like salsa.
Cilantro may stand in for basil in salads and similar raw applications. You can also use it to replace Thai basil in pho and similar dishes, but it won’t work in many of the more common basil-forward applications like pasta sauces or Margherita pizza.
When should you use basil, and when should you use cilantro?
Basil offers a key part of the traditional flavor profile for tomato-based dishes from Italy, as well as other favorites like spinach alfredo. Thai basil and holy basil are what you need if you want to make authentic tasting versions of Thai favorites like pad kra pao.
Cilantro is associated with Mexican dishes like salsa and guacamole, but it is also sometimes added to European-style salads as one of the greens. In Asia, cilantro is used in Indian chutneys and is one of the essential fillings for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches.