Let’s talk about the differences between parsley vs Italian parsley and their many uses. It’s a hot topic and the number of opinions among the Italian community and avid gardeners about these two herbs are endless.
Drawing from my own experiences of using both curly and Italian parsley in my Italian recipes, I hope to demystify any confusion you may have. I’m also going to share several tips that you will find helpful when cooking Italian recipes.
Parsley vs Italian parsley
The general classification of the parsley family is called Petroselinum crispum and it belongs to the apiaceae family. There are multiple types of parsley, and even sub-classifications too. However, two of the most common varieties are curly parsley, mostly referred to as parsley, and Italian parsley.
Italian parsley is known by its scientific name as Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum. Notice the last word? Italian parsley is said to have originated from Naples, and it the most common type used in Italian cuisine.
I use both types of parsley in my Italian cooking, and I’ve also grown both in my herb garden as well. I’ll break down a summary of each below.
The popularity of parsley vs Italian parsley
Curly parsley was once the king of garnishes up until the last decade or so. It was almost always used as the defacto garnish at restaurants. It is also a very hearty plant, easy to grow long into the cooler months, making it convenient for storing on shelves or shipping for various culinary uses, whether a seasoned chef or a home cook.
But unlike the longer stemmed Italian parsley which can grow up to 2 foot high, it’s been losing popularity for a while.
It’s only more recently in the last few decades that Italian parsley has become more popular among chefs as the availability has grown, especially here in the U.S. Chefs have also commented that it’s easier to dice and chop, which I have to agree.
Some people will swear that curly parsley is just too old-school and it’s a dying breed. And many Italians adamantly state that they never use curly parsley and only flat leaf – ever. I’ve heard every angle – reminiscent of the passionate sauce vs gravy argument that plagues our online Italian food forums!
However, despite the parsley snobbery, I won’t change my position on either one – it really comes down to availability and your personal preference.
With that said, I’ll share everything I know and my own non-opinionated opinions (is that an oxymoron?) to help you in your search for the truth!
Differences in Appearances
If you’re new to using parsley or unsure of which is which, let’s first address the obvious – appearance.
Curly parsley is well… curly. It has bright green bunchy leaves that almost look like a bouquet. The stem holds lots of little stiff branches that each have roundish bunchy leaves on them. It’s often what is used as a garnish to pasta dishes whether it’s an alfredo recipe or spaghetti swimming in your homemade spaghetti sauce.
I’ve never seen Italian parsley, however, used as a garnish, but some have stated that indeed it is.
Who’s right? Who knows.
On the other hand, Italian parsley plants have a much darker green color and their leaves are flat. Hence, why it’s often referred to as flat-leaf parsley. If you ever see a recipe that mentions flat leaf parsley, it’s referring to Italian parsley.
The stems are thinner, and the leaves are wide, flat and floppy. The difference is obvious.
PRO TIP: Be careful at the grocery store when shopping for Italian parsley; it looks deceptively like cilantro. There’s nothing more annoying than grabbing your store-bought flat leaf parsley for an Italian recipe, only to realize that you carelessly grabbed cilantro!
What? No… I’m not talking from personal experience… I don’t make those mistakes… 🤣
Differences in Flavor
The best way to understand the difference in flavor between the two types of parsley is by tasting them for yourself. Next time you’re at the store, try buying some to use in different Italian recipes so you can experience the difference first-hand.
No one, and I mean NO ONE seems to agree on which version has a stronger flavor. Some say it’s curly, and some say the Italian has more flavor. I’ve heard some people say one type doesn’t have any flavor at all.
I can’t help but wonder what type of grower it was to have tasteless parsley – of either variety!
Curly parsley flavor
Curly parsley has a very bright and pronounced flavor. And in my opinion a little bit of tang that hits the sides of the tongue. Some may say it’s bitter. It was often used as a garnish in previous decades before Italian parsley became popular.
It’s actually great for taking care of unpleasant breath or when you need that garlic taste to go away!
PRO TIP: When eating parsley raw, just be aware that the texture can be tough and a little scratchy due to the stiffness of the stems and leaves. So chew it well if eating it uncooked.
Italian parsley flavor
Italian parsley has an earthy flavor with a peppery taste. Personally, I don’t care for the flavor of it raw, but I don’t mind it when it’s cooked. Although some people prefer it fresh, not cooked. Some people also insist that it’s Italian parsley that has a bitter taste, not curly.
Again – who’s right? Find out for yourself and draw your own conclusion is my motto.
Used in certain types of recipes Italian parsley provides great depth and a robustness to the overall dish. An example is my shrimp spaghetti recipe which specifically uses Italian parsley, and it tastes amazing!
The parsley is added fresh with the olive oil-based sauce, and with its smoother texture, it’s perfect for this type of quick dish.
When to Use Parsley vs Italian Parsley
So when it comes to practicality, which type of parsley do you use for what type of recipes or cuisine? To start, both can be used in Italian cooking.
Here are some general tips I put together to help you.
- In salads for a nice pop of flavor, typically chopped very fine.
- As part of marinades for chicken or other meats.
- As a garnish on top of any type of dish to add color.
- When using as part of a seasoning – such as for bread stuffing, or in meat mixtures used to stuff vegetables.
- As part of breading for frying, due to it’s texture especially helping the crispy factor.
- In homemade spaghetti or pasta sauces.
Italian parsley uses
- With Italian recipes that use an olive oil or butter-based sauce.
- In Italian soups where a slightly earthy, muted but noticeable flavor is wanted – think brothy soups like Italian wedding soup.
- In spreads or dips such as parsley pesto, mainly due to the smoother texture of the leaves.
- With grain dishes that would benefit from a slightly peppery flavor such as with my Italian chicken and farro recipe.
- When the fresh herb needs to have a smooth appearance and texture.
Examples of Recipes with Parsley
Here are some recipes that use either curly or Italian parsley.
This Italian frittata recipe goes great with Italian flat leaf parsley, but you can substitute curly parsley too.
This recipe for all beef meatballs can use either curly or flat leaf parsley.
My recipe for pasta with breadcrumbs uses parsley as an essential ingredient to enhance the flavor of this simple dish. I recommend either type.
If you make my Italian breaded chicken breasts, you can use either type or even a 50/50 split. I use a lot of parsley in the breading and have used both types resulting in an equally delicious meal!
When to use Fresh vs Dried Parsley?
The general rule of thumb for using dried herbs vs fresh is the same for both types of parsley. In most dried seasonings, curly parsley is used unless it specifies Italian parsley in the list of ingredients.
Just this week I was at a store looking at their herbs and saw that McCormick’s was selling specifically, dried Italian parsley. Maybe I’m clueless, but that’s the first time I saw that.
Here are tips for using fresh herbs vs dried– regardless of variety.
- Dried parsley is more concentrated so less is needed if substituting for fresh.
- Use a 3 to 1 ratio for fresh to dried.
- It is best to use fresh parsley when sauteing in oil, as the fresh oils from the plant will spread through the cooking oil. Dried parsley lacks the fresh oil and will not impart as much flavor throughout.
- Add dried parsley to the middle or beginning of your recipes for cooking purposes so that flavor can infuse better throughout the dish as it cooks.
- Add fresh parsley towards the end of the recipe so the freshness of the flavor will still be noticeable and not cooked out.
How to Store Parsley
The best way to store either curly leaf parsley or Italian, is to create a fresh cut off the bottom of the stems, and place in a glass half full of water. Place a clear plastic bag loosely over top and tighten it around the sides with a rubber band or easy-to-remove tape.
Place in a fridge, and every 3 or 5 days check to see if the water is getting cloudy. If so, replace with fresh water, and remove any dying stems. I’ve had my own parsley last this way for weeks!
If you can’t use the water method, then wrap the end of the parsley in a damp paper towel and place in a zip lock bag partially sealed. Store in your crisper drawer and check on it every 2 days.
Can you use parsley and Italian parsley interchangeably?
In many recipes, you can use the two types of parsley interchangeably. However, some may question your authenticity of Italian cooking if you do.
The best analogy I can come up with is that it’s similar to using fresh tomatoes vs canned tomatoes. Yes, they can be swapped, but it depends on the type of recipe.
While you can often swap fresh tomatoes for canned tomatoes, you can’t always swap canned tomatoes for fresh. The same is true with swapping curly parsley for Italian respectively.
If you find yourself with a bunch of leftover fresh parsley of either kind, you can easily dehydrate them in a dehydrator. Make sure they are dry ( I like to clean mine first), and lay them flat, not chopped on the dehydrator tray.
If you don’t have one, then do what my mother did which was to hang them upside down in a brown paper bag tied with a string, hung up in the attic. By next season, you’ve got lots of dried parsley at your fingertips!
Cleaning and prepping parsley
To clean parsley for cooking, both types are cleaned the same way. Rinse them thoroughly to remove any dirt or debris which can especially get caught in the curly leaves. Pat dry with a paper towel.
You can remove the leaves from the stem and chop just the leaves, or you can also incorporate the stems themselves by chopping them very fine. I’ve done both depending on the purpose. If I didn’t want any stems showing in the food, then I didn’t use them.
This is very true for any sauces. However, with hearty soups or meat mixtures such as my Italian meatloaf, I’m fine to include them. The flavor may be a bit more bitter than the leaves, so if in doubt, leave the stems out.
If you enjoy this type of post, make sure to check out these too!
Learn how to grow Italian flat green beans. Never heard of these – you must try them, they are the best!
How to grow basil inside and outside. This post explains how I’ve grown basil all year, and soil-less too!
As an Italian-American, who only enjoys cooking Italian recipes, I believe that the most important thing is that you love what you cook and that it gives you joy. And of course, that everyone, including your kids, will enjoy the recipe!
I encourage you to have fun and experiment with the different types and see which variety of parsley you like most with your Italian cooking.
If you enjoyed this post or learned something new about the differences between parsley and Italian parsley, feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear from you!