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Does cilantro taste good in chili?

Cilantro is a polarizing herb – people tend to love it or hate it. Its pungent, citrusy flavor can be overpowering for some. This makes cilantro a controversial ingredient to add to dishes like chili. Some argue that cilantro adds a brightness and complexity to chili that takes it to the next level. Others find that cilantro clashes with the warming spices typically used in chili recipes. So does cilantro actually taste good in chili? There are a few factors to consider.

The flavor profile of cilantro

First, it helps to understand the unique flavor profile of cilantro. The leaves of the cilantro plant have a very distinctive taste that some describe as fresh, bright, and citrusy. The flavor compounds in cilantro leaves include:

– Aldehydes like decanal and dodecanal – these impart a citrusy, orange-like taste
– Green leaf volatiles like (E)-2-hexenal – these add a fresh, green taste
– Terpenes like linalool and geraniol – these contribute a floral, sweet aroma

So in essence, cilantro adds a punch of bright, citrusy flavors along with floral notes. This is quite different from the warming spices used in traditional chili recipes. Typical chili seasoning contains spices like cumin, oregano, paprika, garlic, and chili peppers. These spices add an earthy, savory, and spicy kick.

Some people find the cooling, citrusy cilantro contrasts nicely with the heating spices. The cilantro adds a brightness that balances out the deep, earthy flavors. For others, the cilantro clashes unpleasantly with the seasoning profile of the chili. So whether cilantro successfully complements or contradicts the flavors in chili comes down to personal taste preference.

Factors that affect cilantro taste perception

Research has shown there are a few factors that affect how people perceive the taste of cilantro:


Genetics play a major role in cilantro taste perception. Studies have identified certain gene variants that make people more likely to find cilantro soapy, unpleasant, and pungent. These cilantro-hating gene variants affect olfactory receptor genes, which influence how we smell and taste foods. It’s estimated 14-21% of the population carries at least one copy of the gene variants that make cilantro taste bad. So for a portion of the population, cilantro may clash with the flavors in chili due to genetic reasons.

Culture and cuisine

Culture and ethnicity also play a role. Cuisines from parts of the world where cilantro is heavily used may shape people’s preferences. For example, cilantro is a staple seasoning in Mexican, Thai, Indian, and Middle Eastern cooking. People who grow up eating dishes from these cuisines may view cilantro more favorably. They are accustomed to cilantro complementing chili, curries, and stews. On the other hand, those who did not grow up eating cilantro-laden dishes may find it overpowering or out of place in chili.

Freshness of cilantro

Additionally, the taste of cilantro can change as it ages and oxidizes. Fresh cilantro has a more vibrant, citrusy flavor. As cilantro sits, it produces an enzyme that converts the compounds in the leaves into molecules with an unpleasant soapy taste. Old, oxidized cilantro may clash with the flavors in chili and leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Using freshly chopped or picked cilantro minimizes this issue.

Amount used

Finally, the specific amount of cilantro used in a chili recipe affects the end result. A subtle sprinkle of chopped cilantro at the end may provide an accent of freshness. But used in excess, cilantro can overpower all the other chili flavors. Finding the right balance point comes down to personal taste and preference.

What the experts say

Professional chefs and cooking experts have shared their thoughts on the cilantro chili combo:

In support of cilantro in chili

– Celebrity chef Martha Stewart states “A sprinkling of chopped cilantro at the end gives chili verde a fresh taste.”

– Rick Bayless, chef and cookbook author, includes cilantro in several of his chili recipes. He remarks that cilantro “gives a clean, bright finish to any chili.”

– Professional blogger Nagi Maehashi writes, “Cilantro cools down the heat and brings a fresh herbal flavor to chili.”

– Cookbook author Lisa Fain says, “Cilantro’s cooling flavor balances beautifully with the warmth of the chili peppers.”

Against cilantro in chili

– Professional chef Edward Lee writes that cilantro has “no place” in his chili as it clashes with the deep, smoky flavors.

– Food writer Colman Andrews states that cilantro “fights too much” with the seasoning profile of “true chili.”

– Cookbook author Diana Kennedy believes cilantro competes with chili flavors in an “unpleasant way.”

– Chef Stephen Wambach remarks that cilantro “confuses the palate” when eaten in a chili dish.

What different chili styles say

Looking at traditional chili recipes lends some insight into whether cilantro works. Different chili styles have different approaches to cilantro:

American chili

American-style chili often skips the cilantro. Traditional American chili gets flavor from chili powder, cumin, garlic, and oregano. Tomatoes and beans are common. Cilantro is not typical in most American chili recipes. Leaving it out avoids any clash with the classic chili seasoning profile.

Mexican chili

Mexican-style chili recipes frequently include cilantro. For example, chili verde is a pork and green chili stew seasoned with cilantro and tomatillos. Other Mexican chili varieties like chili con carne also often finish with fresh cilantro. Since cilantro is integral to Mexican cuisine, it complements the flavors well.

Indian chili

Indian chilies use generous amounts of cilantro. Cilantro chutney is sometimes mixed into chickpea and vegetable chilies to add moisture and flavor. Chili chicken and lamb curries also rely on cilantro before serving. Indian cuisine liberally uses herbs and greens like cilantro, so it integrates seamlessly into Indian-style chili.

Thai chili

Thai chili dishes typically include cilantro. Thai curries balance the warming spices with fresh herbs like basil, mint, and cilantro. The cilantro adds a refreshing note when paired with the heat of Thai chilies.

What types of cilantro work best in chili

Not all cilantro preparations work equally well in chili:

Fresh cilantro

Fresh chopped cilantro just before serving is the best way to add it to chili. This preserves the most bright, citrusy notes. Sprinkle it on as a finishing touch or garnish so the flavors stay vibrant.

Cilantro leaves

Use the cilantro leaves rather than the stems. The leaves contain the most flavor compounds. The thick stems can make the cilantro taste slightly bitter.

Dried cilantro

Dried cilantro loses some of the bright, volatile compounds during dehydration. So dried cilantro may not provide the same flavor contrast as fresh. If using dried, add more volume to account for the loss in flavor intensity.

Cilantro seeds

Cilantro seeds (coriander seeds) taste quite different than the leaves. While cilantro seeds have a lemon-sage flavor, they lack the cooling green flavor of the herb. So the seeds don’t provide the same balance of flavors.

Cilantro oil

Cilantro oil distills the flavors into an intense, concentrated form. A few drops of cilantro oil can quickly overpower a chili. Use a light hand or the cilantro can dominate.

Cilantro pesto

Making a cilantro pesto or paste allows it to integrate more smoothly. Blending cilantro with garlic, olive oil, nuts or seeds can create a well-distributed cilantro flavor. Mix in a dollop or swirl of cilantro pesto briefly before serving.

How to use cilantro in chili

There are a few techniques for adding cilantro that work well in chili:

Add near the end

Add chopped cilantro in the last 5-10 minutes of cooking. This protects the flavor and aroma compounds that would dissipate with prolonged cooking. Stir through just before serving.

Use as a garnish

Use fresh cilantro leaves as a finishing garnish on top of the chili. Sprinkle over individual portions for a pop of color and flavor.

Blend into a sauce

Blend cilantro with Greek yogurt or sour cream to make a sauce for drizzling over chili. This integrates the cilantro smoothly.

Mix with other herbs

Combine cilantro with complimentary cooling herbs like mint, Thai basil, or parsley. This creates a mixed fresh herb finish.

Use cilantro pesto

Drizzle a swirl of freshly made cilantro pesto or chutney on top of chili bowls. This adds a concentrated cilantro kick.

Chili recipes with cilantro

Some delicious chili recipes that use cilantro:

Turkey Chili Verde

This Turkey Chili Verde gets topped with fresh cilantro before serving. The cilantro pairs nicely with the tomatillos and green chiles.

Ingredient Amount
Ground turkey 1 lb
Onion 1 cup diced
Garlic 2 cloves minced
Tomatillos 16 oz chopped
Green chiles 4 oz diced
Chicken broth 1 cup
Cumin 1 tsp
Oregano 1 tsp
Cilantro 1/4 cup chopped

Slow Cooker Chili Verde Chicken

This slow cooker chili verde chicken loads up on fresh cilantro at the end for plenty of flavor. Cilantro merges well with the tomatillos, jalapenos, and cumin in this dish.

Ingredient Amount
Boneless chicken thighs 1 1/2 lbs
Green salsa 16 oz
Chopped tomatillos 14 oz
Green chiles 4 oz chopped
Chicken broth 1/2 cup
Cumin 2 tsp
Garlic 3 cloves minced
Cilantro 1/4 cup chopped

Crockpot White Chicken Chili

This creamy crockpot chicken chili gets garnished with cilantro before serving. The cilantro’s fresh flavor brightens up the rich, savory chili.

Ingredient Amount
Chicken breasts 1 lb diced
Onion 1 cup chopped
Garlic 3 cloves minced
Green chiles 4 oz chopped
Chicken broth 4 cups
Cannellini beans 2 cans drained
Monterey jack 1 cup shredded
Cilantro 1/4 cup chopped

Indian Chili Chicken

This Indian chili chicken stew is loaded with fresh cilantro. It gets added half way through cooking and finishes with even more at the end. The cilantro pairs excellently with classic Indian spices.

Ingredient Amount
Chicken thighs 1 lb cubed
Onion 1 cup diced
Garlic 3 cloves minced
Ginger 1 Tbsp minced
Tomato sauce 6 oz
Garam masala 2 tsp
Turmeric 1 tsp
Cilantro 1/2 cup chopped

Does cilantro taste good in chili?

So does cilantro complement chili or clash with it? Overall, the answer depends on your personal taste preferences and the specific type of chili. Here are some conclusions:

– For cilantro lovers, its fresh flavor brightens up and balances the warmth of chili. It contrasts nicely with the hearty spices and chili heat.

– For cilantro haters, its taste may clash unpleasantly with the savory chili seasonings. Some find it makes chili taste soapy or overly pungent.

– In Mexican and Indian style chilies, cilantro integrates seamlessly to add flavor. But it can seem out of place in traditional American chili recipes.

– Used sparingly near the end, cilantro provides a subtle flourish of flavor. But added excessively, it can overwhelm the other ingredients.

– Cilantro’s taste comes through best freshly chopped just before serving. Dried or cooked too long, it loses its signature vibrancy.

So while cilantro chili fans and critics remain divided, there are ways to incorporate cilantro successfully into chili. Cooks can adjust recipes and techniques to allow cilantro to complement or take a backseat to the chili spices, depending on taste preferences. With the right balance, cilantro can add a pleasant kick of freshness to chili.