Curly Leaf Parsley vs Flat Leaf Parsley – What Are The Differences?

The herb parsley (Latin name ‘Petroselinum crispum) is a popular seasoning and garnish in many cuisines across the globe. Packed with flavor and nutrients, it’s no surprise it is a spice rack staple for many. But did you know that there are two varieties of parsley?

Curly parsley (Latin name ‘Petroselinum crispum neapolitanum) is a commonly available garnishing herb, found in big box supermarkets, local grocery stores and backyard herb gardens alike.

Curly Leaf Parsley Versus Flat Leaf Parsley - What Are The Differences, And Which Is Best For Your Dish

It is very visually pleasing, and has a mild, earthy taste, making it complimentary to many other stronger flavors.

Flat parsley (sometimes also called Italian parsley, due to its prominence in Mediterranean cooking) is also widely available for purchase, although it is more likely that you will find it dried than fresh.

Whether fresh or dried, flat parsley is usually used as a seasoning, rather than a garnish, as it has a stronger vegetal flavor. 

Although they come from the same botanical family, the umbelliferae, or carrot family, they are distinctly different ingredients. The two varieties are completely unique in flavor, need to be prepared in their own way, and will have different effects on any dish.

Knowing the distinction between the two most popular types of parsley is important for any chef, whether you’re cooking in a professional kitchen, or at home.

Aesthetics Matter When Comparing Curly And Flat Leaf Parsley

When differentiating these herbs, the hint is in the name – the major difference between the two is the shape of the leaves and the way they look.

Curly parsley has frilly looking leaves, that make the plant look lush and dense, whereas flat parsley has flatter leaves, like those of the coriander plant.  

Because it looks lusher and healthier, curly leaf parsley is often used as a garnish on top of dishes like soups and curries, or in salads.

Flat leaf parsley is more commonly used chopped and mixed into food during the cooking process, although it can be a food garnish too, like with salsa, chutney and guacamole.

Flat Leaf Parsley Has A Stronger Flavor Than Its Curly Cousin

Italian parsley has a herbaceous flavor, meaning that it is frequently used as a seasoning herb, along the same lines as dill, oregano and basil. It has particularly prominence in Mediterranean, Eastern European and Middle Eastern cuisines, as it is native to these areas.

The flavor of flat parsley is massively dependent on its growing conditions, so it can vary from plant to plant. 

On the other hand, curly parsley has a much more mild and understated flavor, meaning that it shines as a garnish, because it is unlikely to influence the taste of the overall dish.

When it is a young leaf, it is tender, bright green, and has a muted, almost grassy flavor. As a leaf grows older on the plant, it will advance to a darker green color, and start to taste slightly bitter. 

Can You Swap Curly Parsley For Flat Parsley? 

The interchangeability of curly and flat parsley divides professional and home cooks alike – generally, they think that thinly sliced flat parsley is an adequate substitute for curly parsley (so long as you use a bit less than the recipe called for, as it is more flavorful), but not the other way around. 

Some disagree with this, though, as flat parsley is perceived as more flavorful than its curly companion.

This isn’t strictly true – curly parsley has a milder flavor, but is very aromatic (a large part of the sense of taste is attributed to smell), and the strength of its flavor often depends on the type of soil it was grown in. 

Overall, there’s a highly nuanced difference between flat and curly parsley, and whilst flat parsley be used as both a seasoning and garnish, the vivid green hue of curly parsley brings a colorful splash of life to dishes. 

Whether you substitute one parsley for another in your cooking is totally up to you – though some chefs may disagree, there is no right or wrong way to use herbs, so season to your own taste and preferences.

Can Use Substitute Flat Parsley For Curly Parsley? 

If your recipe calls for flat parsley, but you only have curly parsley in the house, it can make for a good substitute, though there are a few tips to follow if you want to achieve the same taste. 

Firstly, a higher amount of curly parsley is needed if you want it to replace flat parsley in your cooking. Generally, milder flavor can be compensated for by using twice as much curly parsley as the recipe calls for. 

Secondly, to up the flavor of your parsley, you can release its volatile oils (the compounds which make it taste and smell so distinctive).

This can be done by crushing the leaves between your fingers, or with a mortar and pestle, as this act breaks cell walls down, in essence allowing more flavor out of the leaves and into your food. 

How To Decide Which Herb Goes In Which Dish

We’ve all read a recipe where it simply calls for ‘three sprigs of parsley’, and after reading this article and discovering all the distinct differences between the two herbs, we bet you’re wondering which herb you’re supposed to be using. Don’t worry, we’re going to clear this up for you, and help you work out what the bets option is for your food. 

Like its name – Italian parsley is best suited for Italian food, as its strong flavor and vegetal notes compliment other Italian staples, like tomatoes, basil and Parmesan, very well.

Flat parsley should be used in dishes that already have a strong flavor profile, so that it doesn’t overpower your food. Flat parsley can also be used as a garnish, when you want a dash of flavor, rather than just green decoration.

On the other hand, curly parsley’s main appeal is its gorgeous, ruffled leaves and vivid green coloring. It is best used in dishes when you’re looking to decorate and add a little visual interest to your plate.

To use – chop a generous amount of this herb, and sprinkle readily over your food just before serving (no one wants a steam-wilted garnish).

Another thing to note is that curly parsley is synonymous with French cuisine, so remember that if you are following a French recipe (such as tian tart, Niçoise salad or pissaladiere), that calls for parsley, they most likely mean the curly variety. 

Final Thoughts

Though they’re from the same family, these two varieties of parsley are used in different ways across different dishes.

Make sure you’re using the right one in the right way to make the most flavorful food – but most importantly, remember that cooking is subjective, and you might enjoy your food most using non-traditional seasoning.

Go your own way, and don’t be afraid to experiment in the kitchen. 

Jess Smith
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