If you think you’ve had cinnamon before, there’s a good chance you’re mistaken. Says author Ian Hemphill in The Spice and Herb Bible, you’ve probably actually tasted cassia. Cassia is cheaper than cinnamon and the United States allows both products to appear on labels as “cinnamon.”
True Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), sometimes called “Sri Lankan cinnamon,” is the inner layer of bark of a tropical evergreen tree related to bay laurel.
The cassia tree, its relative, produces bark similar to cinnamon. Several varieties are harvested for consumption, and you’ll find a host of names for all of these types of cassia. C. burmannii is often labeled “Korintje,” “Padang” or “Indonesian cassia”; C. loureiroi is labeled “Saigon cinnamon,” “Vietnamese cassia” or “Vietnamese cinnamon”; and C. cassia is labeled “Chinese cinnamon.”
Telling cinnamon and cassia apart is actually not difficult. Cinnamon’s fragrance is sweet, warm and woodsy. It is not as pungent as that of cassia, which has a slightly bittersweet flavor. Cinnamon is light brown or tan (see Image Gallery), while cassia is darker reddish-brown. Cinnamon bark sticks (sometimes called “quills”) are usually about three-quarters of an inch thick, with many concentric, paper-thin rings. Cassia is also rolled into quills, but the individual layers are noticeably thicker and usually fewer (shown in the vase).
Cinnamon’s sweetness and warming qualities make it a perfect fit for desserts of all kinds, especially in winter and especially those with fruit. Use cinnamon sticks to infuse liquids, such as milk for puddings and sauces. Add a pinch of ground cinnamon to coffee grounds during brewing for a hint of flavor, or directly to your cup for a bigger boost. Make herbal tea with cinnamon sticks, or add the sticks to black tea with milk and other spices for a soothing, fragrant spiced beverage.
A sprinkling of cinnamon makes oatmeal more palatable to people of all ages, and who doesn’t enjoy the intoxicating scent of cinnamon rolls just out of the oven?
Cinnamon pairs well with vegetable and meat dishes, such as the beef brisket recipe at right. It’s an important ingredient in Moroccan tagines (stews), Indian curries and potato dishes.
Cinnamon should smell sweet. If it doesn’t, toss it. Stock both cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon, because cinnamon sticks are difficult to grind yourself. Sticks can last up to a few years, and ground cinnamon will last about six months.
Many cooks prefer Vietnamese cinnamon, but we suggest buying small quantities of various types of cinnamon until you pinpoint your favorite. Penzeys Spices, King Arthur Flour, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Frontier Natural Products Co-op all sell high-quality cinnamon varieties via mail order.