What’s the Deal with Parsley?

Pictured is young flat-leaf Italian parsley growing in our garden.

A friend of mine recently confided that she rarely bought parsley, and had none in her garden, because she really didn’t know what to do with it. Believe me, I get it. For many of us, parsley is that curly green garnish that comes on the plate in cafeteria food that’s mostly there for looks. Why would you eat that? And all these recipes that call for one measly tablespoon of chopped parsley? What’s the point? Why buy a whole bunch just for one tablespoon?

Here’s the deal. Parsley brightens flavors. It adds balance to savory dishes the way that a little lemon juice can make something just taste better. Parsley is a mild “bitter”. The tastebuds on your tongue can distinguish 5 tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Salty and sweet are obvious. Sour you get from acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Umami has to do with the savory taste of protein. Bitter you get from citrus zest, bitter greens like kale, mustard greens, arugula, and parsley. Well balanced dishes stimulate all or most of these taste receptors. Adding parsley to a stew doesn’t make the stew taste like parsley, but will make the stew taste more balanced, if it doesn’t already have a bitter in it.

When I first started cooking I would get annoyed at buying a bunch of parsley for a recipe and then not knowing what to do with the rest of it. Now I look out at our garden that I just planted with 12 parsley plants for my parents, and 6 for me, and I’m hoping that that’s enough. Almost every savory dish tastes better with a little chopped parsley either cooked in or sprinkled over the top. (By the way, flat-leaf Italian parsley works better for cooking than the curly parsley. Don’t ask me why, it just does.) The best thing about growing parsley plants? Bugs and slugs typically stay away from them. They are biennials, so in mild climates, a plant will live for two years. The plants over-winter well, at least here in California. The frost just seems to make them happy.

Parsley is also good for digestion. As with other bitter herbs, parsley stimulates appetite and your digestive tract. Years ago I learned that you could ask a bartender for bitters to help settle your stomach if you were out to eat and your stomach needed settling (you know what I mean). That concoction is not made with parsley, but with other bitter essences, but the effect is the same. Bitters help digestion.

What to do if you truly have too much parsley hanging around? I recommend making chimichurri, a South American condiment like pesto, that is made with parsley, garlic, oil and vinegar, which is terrific with steak. Or you could just make parsley pesto, and serve it over pasta.

Do you have a favorite dish where parsley is the star ingredient? Please let us know about it in the comments.

Showing 4 of 113 Comments

  • Joe

    We like to make tabbouleh when our parsley plants start to produce more than we can handle. It’s really easy and is a delicious and healthy treat!

  • C.

    What do you mean no one eats the parsley on their plate? I eat mine and everyone else’s that will allow me to. Nice and clean at the end of the meal, that’s what it’s there for? no?

    Hey, if you like to eat the garnish, great! It’s good for you. I love to eat shiso, a typical garnish for Japanese food. But no, people do not typically eat the garnish parsley. ~Elise

  • fethiye

    Just plain old parsley salad has been my old time favorite: use only the young stems & leaves, after washing and drying them add the salad dressing made out of lemon juice + olive oil + salt, and here you go: salad full of good stuff!

    Parsley is a must have herb in Middle Eastern dishes. Also, you should always opt for flat leaf, not the curly ones for flavor.

  • nags

    This is a very integral part of Indian cuisine. Although I thought it was called cilantro in the US. The picture looks like cilantro but what we call parsley is different. Anyway, its called coriander leaves in India and you can make tons of stuff with it. My top two are coriander chutney and coriander rice.

    What is pictured is flat-leaf parsley (that I planted a week ago), definitely different than cilantro or coriander. Though they look a lot alike. In fact, we usually have one or the other or both in the fridge, so we often have to taste a leaf just to make sure we are using the herb we want! ~Elise

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