Flavor Investigator: Parsley

Parsley is a garnish for traditional restaurant chefs as it is used to add finishing touches to a dish. It adds a freshness and a brightness of colour however there is more to this herb then looks alone. Parsley belongs to the family of Apiaceae, making it cousin to other herbs such as carrot, cumin and dill. They are native to southern Europe, western Asian and the central Mediterranean region.  Overall, parsley has a flavour profile of spicy, fresh, green, herbal, vegetable and woody.

Varieties of Parsley

There are several cultivar groups of parsley and what the cultivar is will affect their usage. The two main groups of parsley- curly/Italian leaf (P. crispum crispum) and flat leaf (P. crispum neapolitanum). Curley head parsley is what we typically associate with garnish. There is a small debate over the flavour of curled parsley as some claim that no value is added due to insignificant flavour. In contrast, others say it has a strong taste with a “dark green” flavour. It is likely that this debate is based off of where someone obtains their parsley. Environmental factors such as sunlight and soil conditions play a role in the development of flavour compounds.

In contrast, flat parsley is primarily used for seasoning purposes as it is described as having a robust taste such baking it into a meatloaf or breads.  A third variety which is not mentioned as frequently is the root vegetable parsley Hamburg root parsley (P. crispum radicosum group) as this parsley is cultivated for its thicker root rather it leaves. Although it appears as though it would taste like a parsnip it has a sweet, tender flavour which is closer along the lines of a carrot.  

Flavour Compounds

One of the major flavour compounds primarily found in parsley leaves is 1, 3, 8-p-menthatriene.  This compound is found in a variety of other herbs such as dill and can be described as tasting oily, terpy, camphorous, cooling, thymol, woody and pine with a slight citrus nuance.  Another identified flavour chemical in parsley is myristicin, a phenylpropene better known for it’s presence in nutmeg. This compound contributes a warm, woody character to parsley. Finally, imparting lemon notes in parsley is limonene. Limonene is a terpene which is extensively found in citrus fruits.

As mentioned above, parsley is a member of the Apiaceae flavour and as a result contains many similar flavour chemicals. Keep this in mind when you are cooking because it allows for easy pairing. Knowing a little botany might just help you out in the kitchen.

Possible Unique Flavour Combinations For Parsley

  • Parsley and Walnut- Walnuts have strong woody notes and a slight undertone of bitterness. This pairs well with the woodiness found naturally in parsley. Additionally, parsley is fresh which offsets walnuts astringency.
  • Parsley and Garlic- The two are commonly known for being a healthy food pairing but that doesn’t hide the fact that they pair well together. Garlic is pungent but has a nutty almost sweet flavour when cooked. This plays to parsley’s woody notes and the herbal element as well.
  • Parsley and Lemon- Both parsley and lemons contain the flavour compound limonene, making them a natural pair. The two are a fresh combination pair especially well with white fish and garlic.

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