Description: Small, round, golden seeds from the Coriandrum sativum plant
Flavor profile: Earthy, sweet, floral, citrusy
Related cuisines: South Asian, European, Latin American, Middle Eastern
Storage: In a tightly sealed, non-porous jar, whole coriander seeds will last about one year. Ground coriander will last about six months in a cool, dark place, and about one year stored in the freezer.
“Some of the most humble seeds in your cupboard can be so exquisite because they’re little hidden portals,” says Claire Cheney, founder and self-proclaimed “Blender-in-Chief” of Curio Spice, a spice shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s what Cheney thinks about coriander, a spice that gets her arguably more excited than the others constantly stocked in her pantry. She credits this enthusiasm to its endless versatility.
Coriander is a citrusy, floral spice that pairs well with a number of other spices. The seed is native to Europe and the Mediterranean region, but is used in cuisines across the world, including South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. But what is it about the seed that makes it so special, and how is it most effectively used in the kitchen? We talked to Cheney about the ins and outs of coriander seeds—including how to shop for them and how they’re used—during which time she continued to sing their praises high and low.
What is Coriander?
Coriander seeds come from the same plant as cilantro, the Coriandrum sativum plant, which is a member of the carrot (Apiaceae) family, along with celery, fennel, and cumin. The seeds are the dried fruit of the plant. They’re grown in a cool climate and have an earthy, sweet, citrusy taste and a floral aroma.
“I think the floral nature of coriander is very accessible and refreshing in a sense,” says Cheney. “The dominant flavor compound in coriander is called linalool, which is one of the most common scents in many flowers. It’s in orange blossom, lilacs, lily of the valley, so we’re not just saying it’s floral! It’s fun to draw that connection.” While these flavors don’t have the taste of coriander (and, to be clear, we don’t condone actually tasting them), they share a similar floral aroma.
“Coriander has a kind of unifying effect in spice blends,” says Cheney. “It can amalgamate disparate flavors and draw together intense edgy flavors that might otherwise not create harmony in a spice mix. There’s something about its light, airy quality and also that floral characteristic that kind of draws other flavors together.” Its trademark qualities make it a great partner to other spices (more on that in a bit!), and it’s gentle enough that it’s almost never overpowering.
How to Buy and Store Coriander
Coriander—both ground and whole–can be found at most grocery stores and international markets. When it comes to shopping for the spice, there are a few things to look out for to ensure you’re buying a quality product. Most importantly, you’ll want to make sure all the coriander seeds are whole. Broken seeds indicate lower quality and also won’t taste fresh. “Anytime those seeds are broken, the oils are escaping, and it can also spoil the rest of it,” says Cheney. “That’s true of any whole spice, but particularly with coriander.”
Color is also a key indicator of good coriander seeds. “You want to look for a light golden color, avoiding browner seeds or even jars that contain a mixture of colors,” notes Cheney. “That generally means there’s older stuff mixed in with newer stuff. You want a consistent color, which should be a light golden yellow-brown.”
With most spices, Serious Eats (along with Cheney) recommends buying them whole and grinding them as needed, which will give you a fresher taste; this holds especially true with coriander. “The notes are so volatile that unless you’re really vigilant about keeping ground coriander in the freezer, [they] won’t maintain those fresh, springy flavors for very long,” says Cheney.
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However, if you do opt to buy ground coriander, Cheney recommends looking out for grinds with a coarser texture. “I’m always suspect of finer textures in the spice world,” she says. She notes that in the commodity spice market, lower quality spices often fail inspection because of what can be mixed with them—sticks, rocks, and even hair. “The FDA has certain rules about what’s passible, so a lot of times, importing ground spices is the way to ensure that that stuff can’t be detected,” she says, “but it’s there, and that’s gross.” When spices are ground finely, it’s easier to hide these imperfections, but coarse ground spices are more likely to reveal those flaws. In addition to a coarser texture, look for a consistent particle size and color, as spices can fade if they’re being stored improperly.
And when it comes to storage, just like any of your other spices, you’ll want to store coriander in a tightly sealed, non-porous jar and tuck it away in a cool, dry, dark place, such as a drawer or cabinet. Cheney also suggests storing the seeds in the freezer—especially if you don’t use them often—to preserve their freshness; make sure they are completely dry and then simply seal them tightly in a zipper-lock bag. Stored properly, good quality coriander seeds will last for about a year before they start to lose flavor.
How to Cook With Coriander
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Coriander is a component of many different cuisines, from Middle Eastern and South Asian to South American and Asian. It’s often used whole for its texture, since it lends a nice light crunch. The spice is used in Indian cuisine in curries, tadka, and garam masala, while many Latin American and Mexican cuisines will use it in preparations of sauces, soups, and beans, and Egyptians even use it in their preparation of dukkah. It serves as an excellent component for a spice rub for a number of meats like duck, chicken, and fish, especially when slowly braised. Because of its ability to meld so well without other flavors instead of standing out, coriander also works particularly well in many sweet applications—like cookies, crumbles, and dessert sauces—where it brightens and deepens buttery flavors.
One of Cheney’s “next-level” coriander applications involves generously coating scallops by rolling them in the freshly crushed spice and then frying them in butter. Other ways she suggests using it involve incorporating it with cumin seeds and tossing them into a grain or Caesar salad, or sprinkling them over roasted vegetables or nutty soups. Cheney particularly loves crushing them and adding them atop fresh, in-season tomatoes sprinkled with salt and a little bit of garlic.
“You can pair it with so many flavors and it’ll be pleasing and uplifting,” she says. “It’s like someone at a dinner party who can talk to anyone.”