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Spice Cabinet 101: Cinnamon

Spice Cabinet 101: Cinnamon

Ahh the wonderful world of cinnamon. Whenever we meet people and get the great opportunity to talk about spices, the conversation always wanders toward cinnamon at some point. I absolutely love to open the various bags and jars and let the aroma of the various cinnamons sweep away their senses.

Cinnamon is the delicate inner skin of fragrant tree bark. Both cinnamon and cassia trees grow wild throughout Asia. While top chefs, spice merchants and experienced home cooks distinguish between cassia and Ceylon cinnamon, to the consumer, cassia is sold as cinnamon. There are generally four types of cinnamon - Korintje, Chinese, Vietnamese and Ceylon. These four types come from two main varieties of cinnamon - Cinnamomum cassia and Cinnamomum zeylanicum.

Cinnamon has a storied history where some of the earliest recordings have it being imported into Egypt in 2,000 BC. In medieval Europe, it was considered a staple ingredient in many recipes (along with ginger). Since most meals at that time were prepared in a large kettle (the original one pot meal), casseroles containing both meat and fruit were typical and cinnamon helped marry the flavors.

C. zeylanicum, from the source of its Latin name zeylanicum, is called Ceylon cinnamon and is also known as ‘true cinnamon' or ‘old fashioned cinnamon'. Indigenous to Sri Lanka (until 1972 this island was called Ceylon), the best ‘true cinnamon' grows along the western coast in the Colombo region.

Cinnamon and cassia are used similarly, but with its more nuanced flavor Ceylon is probably most recognized in dessert dishes. Ceylon has a much different flavor than cassia - it is more complex, less sweet and has hints of citrus and honey flavor. The aroma is a bit woodsy. While milder, "true" cinnamon has a deeper cinnamon flavor that works very well in the background of savory dishes. Some who are not use to Ceylon cinnamon can be a bit disappointed if they're expecting the spicier cassia flavor.

Bakers have it playing a starring role in cakes, chocolate dishes, fruit desserts (especially apples and pears) and in milk and rice puddings. True cinnamon does also play a supporting role in savory dishes in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine where it works well with tagines and stuffed aubergines. It is also popular in curries and spice blends such as Garam Masala. Sri Lanakan cinnamon is ideal in spicing mulled wines, creams and syrups.

Throughout Europe and Mexico, Ceylon is also the preferred cinnamon. Mexico is the largest importer of Ceylon where it is known as "canela". Ceylon cinnamon balances well with vegetables and fruits such as carrots, onions, spinach, apples, apricots, blueberries, cherries, and oranges. Ceylon also partners well with the spices allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves and ginger.

In the U.S. we are practically oblivious to the exquisite nuances of the two cinnamons. We gravitate towards the bolder flavors of cassia in our spicy sweet cinnamon buns and gingerbread. Harvested from the cassia tree, cassia cinnamon is native to Southeast Asia, with the best grades coming from northern Vietnam and southern China. In this country the "grocery store cinnamon" is usually Indonesian Korintje cassia. So, even within the cassia cinnamon group, there are varying degrees of quality and flavor.

Korintje cinnamon is from Indonesia, usually from Sumatra. This cassia is sold in three grades - A, B and C.  The B and C grades are most often regulated to supermarkets and the wholesale price clubs. This lesser quality has a more bitter taste. Grade A Korintje cinnamon is mellower and a bit sweet. The oil content of this cinnamon is in the 2-3% range.

Chinese cassia is also known as China Tung Hing and is sweeter and more aromatic than Indonesian cassia. This cassia has an oil content of 4%. The most potent of the cassia cinnamons is harvested in Vietnam and is known as Vietnamese or Saigon Cinnamon. This is the sweetest and most flavorful of the cassia and has an oil content of 5-6%. Vietnamese Cinnamon enhances fruits like apricots, apples, cherries, blueberries and oranges. Vegetables pair well with Saigon cinnamon's subtle yet robust aroma, fragrance and warm taste, especially with carrots, onions and spinach.

Ceylon Cinnamon vs Cassia
The sticks of cassia and Ceylon are also very different. Cassia sticks are best recognized as the ones we use to stir in our hot cider. Cassia sticks, also called quills, have bark that is firm and thick. The bark of Ceylon cinnamon sticks is much more delicate, thin and flakes very easily.

So which one is better? If I was in one of those "Chopped" cooking shows and could only choose one type of cinnamon what would I choose? Well without a doubt that would be Saigon Cinnamon it combines well with other spices such as allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. This bold flavor stands up nicely to chiles as well.

This doesn't mean that I don't have plenty of uses for Ceylon cinnamon in my kitchen. It's lighter taste works best when it is not in competition with other flavors - especially with chocolate, citrus and vanilla. I also love to use it in some savory dishes such as moles or bean broths. Chinese recipes calling for cinnamon are generally referring to cassia while Mexican and Southeastern Asia dishes are looking for Ceylon.

Bottom line - I keet all four cinnamons in my spice cabinet as I love using them each where they are best suited.

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