Flat-Leaf or Curly Parsley? Experts Say There's a Clear Winner—and Share How to Best Use This Popular Herb
Has any other herb been taken for granted more than parsley? Though relied upon for its looks—a sprinkling of finely chopped parsley or a sprightly sprig enlivens countless savory dishes—this deep green herb is rarely lauded for its subtle taste or versatility. Still, once you add it to your repertoire, it's clear that this biennial herb, one of the most commonly used in the world, deserves accolades. Its aromatic leaves can be consumed fresh, dried, or cooked, and its culinary and medicinal uses are seemingly infinite.
"Parsley is a great all-rounder—perfect for adding freshness and color to a huge range of dishes and drinks. It can often be overlooked as boring, when, in reality, boring means tried, tested, and tasty," says Elouise Anders, author of Cocktail Botanica: 60 Drinks Inspired by Nature. Anders' riff on one of brunchtime's quintessential drinks, for example, takes fresh parsley in an unexpected direction. "My Herby Bloody Mary calls for parsley to be blitzed with tomato juice and cilantro—the ultimate pick-me-up cocktail," she says. Flat-leaf is her default (curly is her backup)—and yes, the variety matters.
Flat vs. Curly Parsley
Most home cooks are familiar with this herb's two readily available types: French or curly parsley and the more favored Italian or flat-leaf parsley. Both are from the same botanical family as carrots (Umbelliferae). "There are other varieties or cultivars, but they're not used as much," says Julie Rothman, consulting herbalist for Monterey Bay Herb Co, and owner of Flower Power Teas.
Flat Parsley Is Better
Flat-leaf's citrusy, celery-like flavor is often deemed superior, says Mehdi Boujrada, a chef and the founder of Villa Jerada, a company that specializes in Moroccan and Levantine pantry products. "Not only does fresh, good, flat-leaf parsley provide vibrant color from the chlorophyll that is released when you chop it, it also brings beautiful texture," he says.
Curly has had a harder row to hoe: "Curly parsley is naturally drier than flat-leaf parsley, which lends to an unappealing chewier texture that overpowers the dish, and leaves an odd mouthfeel," says Boujrada.
Other factors may inform the generalized preference for flat-leaf. "It's a question of identity," says Hélène Jawhara Piñer, a chef, scholar, and the author of Sephardi: Cooking the History. Recipes of the Jews of Spain and the Diaspora from the 13th Century to Today. "Flat-leaf parsley is used by people with Mediterranean and Asiatic origins," she says. Curly parsley, she notes, has been used for aesthetics and mainly by people from more Septentrional [Northern] territories.
Avoid Dried Parsley
Fresh also rules over dried parsley. "Dried parsley is a no-go," says Boujrada. While it can work in a pinch, the drying process reduces the flavor and moisture, adding little to a dish.
How to Buy and Store Parsley
When purchasing fresh parsley, look for healthy bunches with deep green leaves. Each type mirrors its name: flat-leaf has webbed flat leaves (resembling the leafy tops of its cousin, celery, or cilantro ), while curly has smaller, frilly leaves.
Some cooks snip the stems and store bouquets in a jar with water on the kitchen counter. Others opt for the fridge. Anders falls into the latter camp. "I store it in lightly damp paper towels, as I find it's more reliable than the water-in-a-jar method," she says. Parsley goes limp in seven to 10 days or sooner if left unrefrigerated.
Like other dried herbs, dried parsley should be stored in a glass jar, in a dark cool cabinet.
How to Use Parsley
Parsley garnishes omelets, soups, and casseroles and perks up Moroccan tagines; it is indispensable in Middle Eastern tabbouleh. Raw, garlic-laced parsley sauces, including French persillade, Argentinean chimichurri, Italian gremolata, and salsa verde, elevate roasted, braised, grilled, or seared meat and chicken creations. "It's very common in Mediterranean cuisine," says Rothman. "It adds a nice zest to any dish."
Nutrition and Other Benefits
The entire parsley plant, including from its roots to the seeds, is considered medicinal—but the leaves are true powerhouses. "Parsley leaf is very nutritious. It contains easily assimilable vitamins and minerals," says Rothman.
The herb is high in iron and chlorophyll and rich in vitamins A, B-12, C, and K. Its other nutrients include alpha-linolenic acid, beta-carotene, folic acid, and calcium.
Antioxidants and Inflammation
Parsley leaves are considered anti-bacterial, and a source of the antioxidant apigenin. In small quantities, parsley does the body good, helping to reduce inflammation, clear out toxins, and aid in digestion, and urinary tract infections.
No, it's not a myth: "The leaves can also be eaten to freshen the breath," confirms Rothman.
The History of Parsley
Originating in the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe and western Asia, parsley has flavored foods and garnished plates for over 2,000 years. Its native Mediterranean habitat is rocks and cliffs, and its name, the Greek word for rock (petros), comes from where it thrives.
This green herb played a colorful role in antiquity. In Greek mythology, parsley symbolized death and was said to have grown from the blood of hero Archemorus, whose name means "forerunner of death." The ancient Greeks used parsley to mask the smell of disease and decorated tombs with parsley wreaths. The Romans wore garlands of the herb at feasts to absorb food odors, and used parsley at parties to ameliorate the stench of alcohol and, yes, freshen breath.
Two royal figures are often credited with spreading parsley's culinary gospel. Holy Roman emperor Charles the Great (or Charlemagne) had parsley planted throughout his palace gardens. And Catherine de' Medici, the Florentine queen of France, introduced the French court to Tuscan foodstuffs galore, including artichokes, cabbage, white beans, and, bien sûr, parsley, ensuring all were incorporated into French cuisine. The rest, as they say, is history.