Spice Hunting: Coriander

Coriander is, forever and always, my Casper the Friendly Ghost. Deceptively unassuming, sure, and fairly subtle to boot, but I wouldn't want to cook without it. I don't know of a friendlier spice, nor of one that can wear so many hats in the kitchen. When treated right, coriander is both a wealth of exotic flavors and a chameleon-like substance as closely linked to "spiced" as vanilla is to "sweet."

Though we don't know where coriander first originated (North Africa is a likely candidate), its culinary use likely dated back to biblical times. The Book of Exodus, for example, describes manna as the color of coriander. Nowadays coriander has made inroads into everything from barbecue sauce to curry powders to dessert secret ingredients. It's more than one of my top ten spices—it's indispensable to a spice hunter's craft.

What Does Coriander Taste Like?

Coriander's versatility stems from two key features of its personality. The first is its multifaceted flavor profile. Coriander is hard to pin down in so many recipes because its flavor is all over the map. It has a sensual musk punctuated by an unlikely citrus twang. There's a raw earthy scent to it, made civilized by notes of butter and thyme.

"spend five minutes experimenting with toasting and grinding seeds: you may be surprised at how different the spice can taste."

How coriander is prepared also greatly effects its final flavor, and what other flavors it goes well with. When left whole, coriander is as floral as cardamom—its flavor full of citrus and curry, light and sweet (the seeds are fun to crunch on, too). When ground, the seeds' roasted, nutty aromas come to the fore, though at the expense of all that lovely citrus. Similarly, coriander's flavor deepens the longer it cooks, but its uniqueness falls into the background. "Raw" coriander, perhaps briefly toasted before getting added to food as a finishing touch, retains much more of its lightness. Depending on how you like your coriander, you may prefer one method over the others. But spend five minutes experimenting with toasting and grinding seeds: you may be surprised at how different the spice can taste.

How to Use Coriander

Coriander is friendly enough to run with most flavors in your kitchen, but it's got some favorites. It lends a roundness of flavor to the fire of chiles and makes lime taste deliriously sweet and tropical. Its earthy, lemony lilt is perfect with all manner of legumes, especially lentils for daal. And from lamb to pork to chicken to duck, there's not a meat coriander can't improve, especially in a slow braise. When cooking with coriander, the question is less what does this go with? than what fun can I have with this? You could construct whole meals out of it, something I can only say about a handful of spices.

But I think coriander shines brightest when paired with fruits, vegetables, and spices. Apples, ginger, onions, and all manner of cruciferous vegetables are livened up by the spice. I find coriander most partial to black pepper, cumin, and herbs like thyme, parsley, and cilantro (the leaves of the coriander plant). It's an essential component to homemade curry powders and some complex barbecue rubs; I also find it a brilliant addition to gremolatas of garlic, parsley, and lemon zest.

Perhaps my favorite use of coriander is in sweets, where it functions as something halfway between lemon zest and cinnamon. It brightens and deepens buttery flavors, perfect for cookies, crumbles, and dessert sauces. This week's recipe features coriander in an unlikely form: a whiskey-soaked butterscotch smothering pistachio shortbread. Its effect on the dessert is subtle—your guests probably couldn't pick the flavor out of a lineup—but the dish wouldn't have the same kick without it. (And it's got a fabulous kick.)

So that's my Casper. I go through coriander faster than any spice in my kitchen. Don't be afraid to use it in large quantities—a tablespoon or so where you'd use a teaspoon of other spices. Its gentle flavor rarely overpowers. And experiment with it boldly. Coriander rarely detracts—it only adds.