Harvesting cilantro for optimal flavor is a little bit of an art and a science. After all, the age of your cilantro plants, the varieties you choose to grow, and the growing conditions you provide all can contribute to the quality of the leaves, stems, and seed heads you bring into your kitchen. I love to have a steady supply of cilantro in the shoulder seasons (the plants tend to bolt the minute it gets hot!), so I plant lots of seeds for multiple plants from which I can harvest as I need it.
What’s the difference between cilantro and coriander?
Occasionally, you may hear cilantro called “coriander” or coriander referred to as “cilantro.” They are technically the same plant; however, “cilantro” is commonly used to refer to the plant’s fresh leaves and stems while “coriander” is used to refer to the plant’s dried seeds as well as the spice which is made from those dried seeds.
With its bright green, featherlike foliage, cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) tastes uncannily like dish soap to a subset of the population, thanks to genetic differences that affect the perception of this herb’s odor and flavor. Those who love this herb, like myself (I could eat it by the handful!), would probably say that cilantro has a fresh, “green,” citrus-like taste.
Even if harvesting cilantro for its many culinary uses doesn’t appeal to you, you might still consider growing cilantro because it reliably attracts beneficial insects. Its clusters of small flowers provide food for wild pollinators and also lure in predatory bugs which eat aphids and other common pests.
The best planting conditions and timing for a bigger harvest
When it comes to harvesting cilantro, the more you know about this plant’s life cycle, the better. When leaves are young, they’re tastiest and at their most tender—perfect for eating fresh. Unfortunately, as your plants age, flower, and, ultimately, produce seeds, the quality of the leaves you harvest will diminish. (If you live in an especially warm spot, keep in mind, too, that hot weather hastens this process.)
My article on direct-sowing cilantro seeds features details on sowing seeds. Because this herb thrives in cooler temperatures, you should direct sow cilantro in early spring as soon as your average last frost date has passed and again in early fall.
Soil basics: Your cilantro will thrive in moist, well-draining soil which includes plenty of organic matter like leaf mold, worm castings, and aged compost. Once your seedlings have become established, consider adding mulch to help keep roots cool, lock in moisture, and suppress any competing weeds.
Light: Cilantro prefers full sun, but can tolerate some light shade. (Pro-tip: If you live in one of the hotter climate zones, situate your plants so they’ll get full morning sun but partial shade during the afternoon.)
Food and water: Adding fertilizer for your cilantro isn’t paramount. In fact, harvests from cilantro plants that get too much nitrogen aren’t nearly as flavorful. Make sure your plants get about one inch of water per week.
When is cilantro ready to be harvested?
Most cilantro seeds require about 50 to 60 days or more to reach maturity. Depending on the cilantro variety you choose to plant, you may be able to harvest sooner. (Confetti, for example, matures in just 28 to 35 days.) Once your seedlings are at least six inches tall, you can begin harvesting.
Harvesting cilantro leaves step by step
Not sure exactly how to harvest cilantro? The cut-and-come-again method is one of the simplest ways to do it. When your plants are at least six inches tall, you can safely remove the most mature outer leaves for harvest just as you might cut back greens like kale or lettuce. You’ll leave any younger, smaller stems growing on the plant’s interior intact and, the next time you come to cut, these stems likely will have grown enough for it to be their turn to be harvested.
How much to harvest from each cilantro plant
To keep each of your cilantro plants healthy and strong, avoid cutting too much new growth all at once. Ideally, you should leave at least a third of the foliage intact and, for best results, use clean, sharp shears when harvesting cilantro.
If you notice your cilantro plants are beginning to send up flowering stalks, or the leaves start to appear feathery, you can cut these back more aggressively in order to briefly delay seed-setting and prolong leafy, green growth.
Can you harvest a cilantro plant more than once?
Absolutely! Harvesting cilantro multiple times from the same set of plants is possible, but, if you want to gather fresh cilantro leaves regularly, you’ll need to delay seed-setting as long as possible. That’s because when a cilantro plant bolts—that is, when it begins to flower and subsequently develops mature seeds—its leaves’ texture and flavor are negatively affected.
A cool-weather crop, cilantro usually starts to bolt when ambient temperatures are consistently 80 degrees F (26.7 degrees C) and up. To prolong your harvest, opt for slow-to-bolt seed varieties like Calypso and Slow Bolt cilantro. You can also use shade cloth to protect your herbs from the harsh afternoon sun.
When not to harvest cilantro
If you snip stems from cilantro plants that are still too small to harvest, you risk setting their growth back—or worse. To be on the safe side, allow your plants to grow to about six inches tall first.
At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to harvest leaves from mature, seed-bearing plants either. Remember, leaves gathered from seed-setting cilantro plants will be much tougher and more pungent.
How to store the leaves after harvesting cilantro
Unless you plan to use up your entire bounty soon after harvesting cilantro, you’ll likely have some leftovers to store. Here are a few different storage options:
Bouquet method: Have a small number of leftover cilantro leaves still on their stems? Gather these into a bouquet, trimming off the tips of their stems. Next, place in a glass or cup and add enough water to cover the base of each stem. (Avoid submerging the cilantro leaves themselves.) Loosely cover with a plastic bag and keep in a cool, shady place on the kitchen counter or inside the refrigerator. At minimum, your cilantro bouquet should stay fresh for a few days. (You may be able to extend this by periodically re-trimming the base of the stems and replacing the old water with fresh.)
Freezing: You can store fresh, chopped leaves for six months or longer in your freezer. You need only pack the chopped leaves into ice-cube trays, freeze, and then remove the resulting cubes. Store these in a freezer bag and label with the freeze date and the amount of cilantro packed per cube.
Drying: You can dry fresh cilantro leaves in an oven or food dehydrator. To bake, spread washed, dried cilantro leaves out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (In the dehydrator, arrange washed, dried leaves on included dehydration trays.) Dehydration and baking times will vary based on your equipment, but, as a general rule, you can try dehydrating at 100 degrees F for two to three hours or bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. Allow your dried leaves to cool completely and then pack in a labeled, airtight container. If stored in a cool, dark place, the dried cilantro should keep for several months.
Additional tips for harvesting cilantro
Of course, once your cilantro plants do begin to set seed, all is not lost. Now, cilantro doesn’t develop seed pods, per se. Instead, its relatively large, rounded seeds first appear as bright green balls at the end of its spent flower stalks. You can harvest and eat these immature seeds fresh or let them finish their transformation into cilantro (or coriander) seeds.
To harvest the mature seed, allow the plant leaves and stems to go brown and cut the dried plants just before the seeds begin to loosen. Bundle these dry plants together, cover with a paper bag, and then hang the bag upside-down to collect the seeds as they naturally drop off the dried plants. Once collected and stored, you can sow seed next season or use a mortar and pestle to grind the seeds into your very own DIY coriander spice.
Whether you intend to include fresh or dry cilantro leaves or cilantro seeds in your own recipes, you now know that the methods and schedule you’ll use for harvesting cilantro vary depending partly on the age and variety of your cilantro plants as well as your local climate. By planting slow-bolting types, cutting plants back to delay flowering, employing succession planting, and using shade cloth, for instance, you can successfully extend the window for harvesting cilantro while it’s still fresh and green. And once your plants inevitably do go to seed? You’re set to make ground coriander—or to grow more fresh cilantro when the time is right.
More tips for harvesting and preserving herbs
- How to harvest herbs
- Preserving herbs to enjoy later
- Harvesting oregano
- How to harvest thyme
- When to harvest basil