What’s the Deal with Parsley?

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So why bother with parsley? It's a bitter herb that not only helps digestion, but makes almost any savory dish taste better.

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Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

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.

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Links:

That Devilish Parsley - article from West Virginia University Extension Service
Bitters make it better - by Janet, The Old Foodie
Counteracting the bitterness in greens - by Maki of Just Hungry. Just as you can use a bitter to add balance to a salty, sweet, fatty dish, you can add fat, sugar, and salt to add balance to bitter greens.
A Bitter End to Digestion Woes from Dr. David Williams
How to Store Parsley and Cilantro
Chimichurri recipe and ramp and parsley pesto here on Simply Recipes
Tabouleh recipe from Andrea Meyers

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Elise Bauer

Elise Bauer is the founder of Simply Recipes. Elise launched Simply Recipes in 2003 as a way to keep track of her family's recipes, and along the way grew it into one of the most popular cooking websites in the world. Elise is dedicated to helping home cooks be successful in the kitchen. Elise is a graduate of Stanford University, and lives in Sacramento, California.

More from Elise

127 Comments

No ImageWhat’s the Deal with Parsley?

  1. Alexandra

    I live in Sweden, and parsley is very popular here as it has been able to grow here well for 100s of years. However, I don’t like parsley. I don’t find it tasty at all. Do you who like parsley enjoy putting a piece of parsley in your mouth or like the smell of it? I still don’t understand what is the deal with parsley.
    I would like more info on what to do when I encounter a recipe with parsley. Do I substitute it? With what? What type of situations do I still add it because I can count on the taste not being distinguishable.
    I mean I do realise that with some foods you have to cook a certain dish to understand how a particular food can mesh well and come to it own right, like how green peppars work in piccadillo. Or how green beans are actually edible all of a sudden when sesame oil and seeds are added.

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  2. jujueJuice

    Parsley can easy be stored and kept fresh in the fridge. At day 7 it’s as fresh and crisp as at day one. How?

    Cut the stems back one cm and place it in a glass jar with enough water to Just submerge the stems a little. Add about a 1/4 tsp coarse sea salt and place a plastic bag over the bunch covering the lot, all way down to include the glass jar. Place it at the bottom shelf in your fridge or fridge door. Enjoy fresh, crisp parsley for the entire week. (check the water every second day. If it turns too cloudy, change it.

  3. Lyn

    Parsley is easy to freeze. The internet abounds with directions. I live in the north where parsley will freeze over the winter. When temps drop to high 40’s overnight I wrap a length of row cover several times around the parsley. Use clothespins to anchor the end of the row cover. Lay a double folded piece of row cover over the top and tuck it down into the side wrapping. Clothespin the two pieces at intervals. While parsley may freeze it doesn’t know it isn’t in the freezer and can be used most of the winter. Next year, in cold country, plant one parsley plant in the most sheltered spot in your garden, like a southwest facing corner, and you will have a parsley supply for most of the winter. When it yellows use your freezer stash.

  4. Christopher

    Eric, you can tell the difference. It’s not the fact of tasting The Parsley itself but that the parsley helps balance out the flavors. It took me awhile to figure this out as well. For instance, I just made a dish there was a little bit too bold but the parsley balanced things out; without the parsley, it would have been a little bit much going on.

  5. Eric

    I’ve always wanted to do a taste test with people who swear by parsley and create two dishes, one with and one without parsley and see if they can tell the difference. I think it’s all in one’s head. To me, it’s a nearly tasteless addition when you have so many other flavors going on.

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What’s the Deal with Parsley?