Cilantro Vs. Parsley: What's The Difference?

Cilantro and parsley are more than just little green garnishes to make your meal look fancy. The flavors found in these culinary additions can add complexity to a recipe and elevate it from amateur to amazing. You may be wondering, though, if there is much difference between these two similar-looking fresh herbs, and if there is any harm in substituting one for the other. While parsley and cilantro look similar, there are some key differences in flavor and scent that are worth noting.

Before you even pop them in your mouth, their distinct smells are what you will pick up on first. Parsley is the milder of the two, and it has a grassy, vaguely floral aroma. Cilantro, on the other hand, is much more pungent, with notes of citrus and black pepper. Their tastes are even more distinct, where parsley has a slightly bitter but bright vegetal flavor and cilantro tends to be bolder, with a spicy, predominantly lemony flavor. There are those — about 10% of the population — that, due to a sensitivity to a specific compound found in cilantro, experience in it an unpleasant soapy taste, which overtakes any of the other subtle flavors in the herb.

When to use parsley or cilantro for dishes

Given their differences, parsley and cilantro often lend themselves to separate cuisines and flavor profiles. Parsley is often seen used in Mediterranean dishes, such as bulgur wheat tabboulehGreek potato bakes, and pesto. It is commonly used in cooking pasta, meats, and soups and leveraged more as a supporting character to stronger flavors. Meanwhile, cilantro is known for its use in Latin American and East Asian recipes, like fresh salsa, guacamole, and tacos, as well as Thai curries, chutneys, and pho. Its assertive taste and smell make it a central component in many dishes from these regions. 

In a pinch, you won't do any great harm to a dish by swapping out cilantro for parsley; however, note that the recipe will lose a punch of flavor that you may want to add back by including more seasoning or acid, like an extra squeeze of lemon. On the other hand, there are few circumstances in which you should replace parsley with cilantro, as the more powerful flavors will likely clash with the rest of the dish.