Basil and cilantro are quite different herbs although both widely adopted in the kitchen. If you’re making pesto sauce and run out of basil, you may wonder whether you should reach for the cilantro. While these two herbs often work well together, they are not the same. This article has you covered with all the differences you need to know.
What are the differences between basil and cilantro? Basil has a sweet, clove-like flavor while cilantro has a distinct sour taste. Basil (the Genovese one) presents larger and curvy leaves while cilantro ones are smaller and flatter.
Hence, are basil and cilantro the same thing? These herbs belong to different plant families and have many different characteristics. To avoid throwing growing herbs that do no provide the flavor you are looking for, off you should explore some of these differences.
Basil and cilantro are not related as belonging to different families of plants. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) belongs to the Apiaceae family, which also includes carrots, celery, and parsley. I need to mention that cilantro is often referred to as the leaves of the coriander herbs
Basil belongs to the Lamiaceae family, known as the mint or sage family. There are a few varieties of basil (Ocimum basilicum). Still, the one most used in the kitchen and referred to in this article is sweet basil (Genovese basil).
The three main differences that basil and herbs have in common include:
- Appearance: larger and curvy leaves for basil
- Taste: cilantro a stronger taste
- Food pairings: can be swapped but with care
Cilantro can reach 18 inches tall (half a meter) as detailed by Wisconsin Master Gardener Guide. On the other hand, basil (referring to the Genovese varieties, here for more varieties) can grow up to 30 inches (from Wisconsin Gardener Guide). However, the flower stems of cilantro can get extremely tall (up to 3 feet, almost a meter).
The leaves are quite different, so easy to recognize the two herbs. Basil has oval leaves that reach between 1.2 and 4.3 inches long, as detailed by the Planting Village. The leaves are silky and grow opposite each other, branching from a central stem and curving down with smooth edges. They also corrugated near the veins and bending down.
Cilantro has a kind of triangular-shaped leaves that reach up to 0.5 inches long. These leaves are not only smaller than basil ones but also flatter and way more delicate. Instead of smooth edges, the leaves are lacy. Cilantro leaves are broadly lobed toward the bottom of the plant. The upper leaves are thin and feathery.
The stems of (Genovese) basil and cilantro are quite similar. Green, tubular in shape, and a few millimeters in diameter. They tend to be darker in color close to the top.
Both basil and cilantro present white flowers. However, cilantro flowers grow in groups called umbels. Cilantro flower petals tend to wide open in a circular shape. In contrast, basil ones tend to be elongated, creating a tubular shape.
Basil and cilantro have distinct flavors. People often describe Genovese basil (the one you find in shops) as offering a sweet clove-like flavor with a peppery and slightly spicy flavor.
Cilantro has a polarizing taste that most people find it pungent, with a musky odor and taste. Others find it a sharp citron-like taste.
Perhaps you are part of a very sensitive group of people that describe cilantro as soapy. Researchers believe that a small percentage of the population, due to genetic variation, can detect a soapy smell from cilantro leaves that pass undetected in the majority of people.
As both herbs offer a sweet taste, they work well with many of the same foods. These herbs help add zest to various vegetables, such as:
- Bell peppers
They also pair well with other herbs and spices, such as garlic, chives, mint, and parsley, as detailed by the same Penn State University.
Traditionally, basil and cilantro have different culinary uses. Basil is a common ingredient in Italian cuisine, while cilantro appears in various Mexican, Thai, Indian, and Chinese dishes. Basil is often used in pasta and salads. Among the most famous dishes, there are pesto sauce and bruschetta. Pesto sauce, also called basil pesto, is made from fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and aged hard cheese.
The sauce is eaten with pasta, meat, chicken, or fish. Below a video of another Italian with definitely a great passion for cooking. Here, more than 500 recipes using basil (from salad, stir fry pasta, and even smoothie).
Cilantro has a stronger taste compared to basil, requiring only a small amount to add a sweet kick to a dish. You’ll find it in Mexican and Southwestern meat dishes, including burritos, stews, and grilled meats. Below a quick to the point cilantro rice recipe here more than 600 recipes using cilantro.
As with basil, cilantro may be used to add flavor to salads. One of the most common uses for this herb is Mexican salsa.
Cilantro and basil require at least 6 hours of full sun and moist soil. These herbs can quickly grow together in the same pot on your kitchen counter if you follow the right cultivation techniques. The primary considerations for successful cultivation include:
- Lighting and watering
When growing multiple herbs in a pot, make sure they have enough space. If the plants are crowded, one herb may overtake the weaker one for light and nutrients in the soil. Use a pot measuring 8 inches (around 20 cm) for a fully grown single herb (here a guide on the perfect container for basil). Avoid larger pots for a single herb.
Why? The amount of water retained by the soil will be very high and not possible for the herb to dry out with their roots. As a consequence, your herb will have their roots constantly wet. This might be the leading cause of root rot (here an article on plant stress after repotting).
Tip: if you have a large container but only two small plants, I would add, if you have them around, tarragon and parsley to the pot.
Basil and cilantro require well-drained and moist soil. Both herbs can tolerate slightly alkaline soil, up to pH 7.5. Adding compost to garden soil or organic matter to potting soil can improve growth for either herb, resulting in larger yields when harvesting the leaves.
Basil should receive six to eight hours of full sun per day. Cilantro also needs a spot with full sun. In most regions, placing the herb garden in a south-facing or west-facing window should provide optimal sunlight.
These herbs require frequent watering, as the soil should never completely dry out. Avoid soaking the soil, but keep it moist. There is no one single amount of water you need to provide to your herbs. You need to check that the soil at the root level is moist or not. If not, it needs water; otherwise, it is fine. In this gardening tips collection, you can find a detailed description of the toothpick technique (tip #8).
Unfortunately, only basil can be propagated by cuttings. Propagating from cuttings is a convenient way to increase indefinitely, and for free, your supply of herbs. In short, after cutting the stem, long enough at the right point, just place it in water and wait for the roots to develop. After a few weeks (depending on temperature and light condition), the cutting will be ready to be placed into the soil.
This is a process that clone indefinitely (and for free) your herb providing a never-ending source of tasty leaves. Here, you can find a detailed propagation guide (for mint, but applicable to many herbs).
For cilantro, you might want to buy a potted plant from the supermarket (relatively common) or grow from seeds (quite slow but rewarding).
Basil can work as a substitute for cilantro in a pinch, depending on the dish. However, some of the other varieties of basil may work better compared to common basil. For example, Thai basil has a slightly spicy flavor that works well as a cilantro substitute.
You may also use cilantro as a substitute for basil in some recipes. While classic pesto is made with basil, some people use a combination of basil and cilantro to give the recipe more kick. Basil cilantro pesto is punchier compared to classic 100% basil-based pesto and a perfect choice for pasta or a quesadilla. Some also do an entirely 100% cilantro pesto.
Cilantro lime chicken is another recipe that you may add basil. However, since basil isn’t quite as spicy or strong, you may need a second herb, such as cumin or marjoram.
Both basil and cilantro are also suitable for curry powder or curry paste recipes. Traditionally, curry powder includes a combination of spices and herbs, including turmeric, ginger, cumin, and coriander seeds.
Genoves basil and cilantro are annuals. This means that when you sow seeds at the start of spring, the plant dies out at the end of the growing season. However, some varieties of basil may be grown as perennials in the right environment.
The lifespan of basil can be increased with adequate pruning as detailed in these 21 steps for massive basil. Indeed, once it flowers, basil will start producing seeds, and it will shortly dry out. However, this process can be delayed by simply preventing the basil to flower. Indeed, by regular pruning and pinching at first bud appearance, your basil can last longer.
Similar to basil, cilantro can last longer than it would be, especially in a warmer environment where otherwise it would quicker produce seeds and die.
What to Choose? Thai Basil or Regular Basil?
Supposed that you have been convinced by a large number of Italian based recipes to buy (or even better grow) basil.
However, after a few research, you realize that there is a massive amount of different types of basil. Among the ones most common in the market, you have the Thai basil. It sounds appealing and perhaps something you are wondering to try.
Does it worth it growing or buying thai basil?
The answer is yes! This great herb is a staple of Asian cuisine with a couple of great recipes that enjoy my Saturday nights. However, there are also a few drawbacks that you might also need to know.
Click the image below to read a detailed article on the matter!
What is a substitute for cilantro in guacamole sauce? A valid alternative can be parsley or basil
How to replace fresh cilantro with dried one? The ratio adopted by many cookers is two to one. Every 2 units of fresh cilantro need to be replaced by one unit of dried one
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