Plus, what to substitute for cilantro if you're cooking for someone with an aversion to the herb.
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Cilantro is an essential herb in so many recipes, from guacamole to some salsas to many chicken and shrimp dishes, and a staple of several cuisines. But you may have noticed that some people don't exactly love the taste of the herb. Their distaste for the herb is much stronger than, say, the reactions of those who dislike basil or parsley. You may even be one of them. Why is this?

Why Some People Dislike Cilantro

"When cilantro is chopped or crushed, it produces a class of compounds called aldehydes, which makes up the flavor of cilantro," says Bryan Quoc Le, Ph.D., a consultant and author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered. "Many of these include long chain alkenals and alkanals, whose structure is similar to the compounds produced during the production of soap. Some people possess a genetic predisposition for detecting these aldehydes in minute concentrations, whereas other people are less sensitive to aldehydes." These sensitive individuals experience cilantro as being soapy and bitter. Individuals of East Asian, Caucasian, and African descent are more likely to have an aversion to cilantro, he adds.

Echoing Le, chef Brooke Baevsky, a manager in product development at Freshly, says that hating cilantro is a genetic trait resulting from a variation in a group of olfactory receptor genes that allows you to strongly perceive soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves. "It is estimated that 4 to 14 percent of the U.S. population has this genetic variation, making cilantro taste like soap," she says. "For everyone else, the leafy green tastes like a fresh herb."

What to Substitute for Cilantro?

Geeking out over the science aside, an aversion to cilantro can create some dilemmas when cooking for people who think the herb is a lip-puckering source of disgust. So what's a home cook to do? Jessica Randhawa, recipe developer and writer of The Forked Spoon, has found that the best substitute for guests who do not like cilantro is parsley with either lemon juice or lemon zest, "as the herb parsley by itself lacks the citrusy tones that cilantro lovers know it for," she says.

Shawn Matijevich, lead chef for online culinary arts and food operations at the Institute of Culinary Education, says there really isn't a direct substitute for cilantro, but he's a fan of a similar swap. "Try a combination of lime or lime juice, flat leaf parsley, and lemon zest. Chop the parsley and lemon zest and sprinkle lemon/lime juice over the top," he says, adding that this adds the same citrus and herbaceous qualities he seeks in a dish that incorporates cilantro.

If you're making a guacamole recipe that calls for cilantro, add in parsley instead (the recipe will likely already call for lime juice). The same concept applies for pico de gallo recipes that call for cilantro. Soft herbs, like basil and/or parsley, without the citrus addition work well, says Baevsky. If you leave out any alternative ingredient for cilantro, take note that you might wind up with a final result that's missing out on some bold and bright flavor notes from its herby zing.

Bottom line: You don't want to serve cilantro-despising guests your favorite spicy cilantro salad, but adding some simple recipe tweaks — and plenty of parsley — to staples like cilantro rice and tacos, you likely can please many palates.


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