Culantro and cilantro are both common herbs in the Americas, though they are not equally common in all parts of the Americas. Despite the similarly spelled names, they are very different herbs. Culantro is more common in some parts of the West Indies and Latin America, while cilantro is a staple in others. Both show up in the same types of recipes but do they have the same properties? Can you replace one with the other? We will answer those questions in our SPICEography Showdown below.
How does culantro differ from cilantro?
The two herbs differ considerably in terms of their appearance. Culantro leaves are long and saw-toothed like dandelion leaves while cilantro leaves are small and lacy like parsley leaves. There is also a significant difference in flavor and aroma intensity since culantro is many times more potent than cilantro. The people who describe cilantro’s flavor as soapy will probably find culantro’s flavor to be even worse.
Culantro is a staple of many West Indian and Latin American cuisines but is relatively rare in the US. You can find it in some Latin grocery stores but you won’t see it in a standard grocery store. In comparison, you can find cilantro in most grocery store produce sections and its flavor is familiar to most people.
As delicate herbs, both culantro and cilantro have short shelf lives, but culantro goes bad in even less time than cilantro. Culantro’s advantage is that you can freeze it and use it in cooked dishes. You can do the same with cilantro but its delicate flavor means that it rarely makes sense to cook with the herb after it has been frozen and thawed. Similarly, thawed cilantro is not a great option for salsa cruda and other raw preparations.
Can you use culantro in place of cilantro and vice versa?
You can use culantro and cilantro as substitutes for each other, but they are not perfect alternatives. You will need to consider their differences if you have to use one in place of the other. Because culantro is much stronger than cilantro, you will use less of it. You can replace a bunch of cilantro with only a few culantro leaves.
You also don’t want to use it at the end of cooking, which is how cilantro is usually added to cooked dishes. Add culantro early during the cooking process to tame its bitterness. You should also use less of it since culantro’s flavor is about ten times stronger than that of cilantro. When using cilantro to replace culantro, you will want to use more of it and add it at the very end of a dish’s cooking time, just before you serve it.
If you are using culantro leaves to replace cilantro in a salad or other raw preparation, mince it or cut it into thin strips. The finer the pieces are, the less likely the herb is to overpower everything else in the dish.
When should you use culantro and when should you use cilantro?
Culantro and cilantro are traditional optional additions to pho, but culantro is the less popular version (especially outside of southern Vietnam) because of its intense flavor and aroma. Cilantro is one of the essential pho condiments.
Use culantro when you want a more pungent, Southern Vietnamese style pho; use cilantro if you want a milder version. Add culantro to your sofrito to give it a flavor that will last throughout a long cooking process. Only add cilantro to dishes at the end of their cooking time.