Cilantro and oregano are two popular culinary herbs. They are staples in many North American kitchens, and you should have both herbs on hand if you plan to cook Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes as well as Mediterranean ones. Cilantro and oregano are flavorful and versatile, so inexperienced cooks should make an effort to familiarize themselves with their applications. How similar are they? Can you use one in place of the other? These and other questions are answered in the SPICEography Showdown below.
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How does cilantro differ from oregano?
Cilantro and oregano are different plants from different botanical families. Cilantro belongs to the Apiaceae family, which makes it a relative of parsley and carrots. Oregano is in the Lamiaceae family, so it is a mint and is related to other mints like basil and thyme.
Cilantro and oregano look nothing like each other. Cilantro has feathery, arrow-shaped leaves with three segments. True oregano — Mexican oregano is not true oregano — has oval or almond-shaped leaves.
Cilantro and oregano have different flavor profiles. Cilantro’s flavor is herbaceous with a citrus background note. Oregano is warm with hints of mint and has a savory bitterness in the background with notes of thyme.
Cilantro and oregano are different when it comes to their availability as fresh herbs in many places, including the US. Fresh cilantro is a staple of Latin American and Asian cooking and will be relatively easy to find anywhere those cuisine styles are popular. In comparison, fresh oregano can be difficult to find unless you grow it yourself. The dried herb is readily available in the spice aisles of most supermarkets, but the fresh herb may only be seen in stores that sell niche produce items.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Cilantro won’t be a good oregano substitute in most dishes. The herbs are too different in flavor and function to stand in for each other. Cilantro would bring the wrong set of flavors to standard oregano applications like pasta sauce. Cilantro is seldom cooked since its flavor does not hold up well to heat. Most dishes that require oregano are dishes that get simmered for a long time. Your best option would be to add it at the end of the cooking time but while the dish might still be edible, it would have a very different flavor to versions that included oregano.
Fresh oregano probably won’t ruin a dish if you use it as a cilantro substitute, but its pungent flavor would probably dominate the taste of all other ingredients. Even if you only used a small amount of it, a recipe with oregano would not taste like the version made with cilantro. Without cooking to mellow out the oregano flavor, the dish in which it replaces cilantro might be bitter and harsh.
When should you use cilantro? And when should you use oregano?
Cilantro is traditionally used in raw applications like Mexican salsas and as a fresh garnish for tacos. You will also see raw cilantro served as a condiment for Asian dishes like Vietnamese pho.
Oregano is traditionally used in Mediterranean dishes. You will see the dried herb used as a flavoring for tomato-based pasta sauces from Italy, as well as in pizza sauce and French vinaigrettes. Oregano is one of the ingredients in French herbes de Provence.