Red Hot

For thousands of years, cinnamon has perfumed every imaginable type of dish—this winter, celebrate its versatility in drinks and recipes.



Cinnamon’s spicy sweetness makes it the perfect antidote to February’s chill. Nothing warms and satisfies quite like a rich, gooey cinnamon roll or a hot mug of cinnamon-spiked cider. Yet throughout history, cinnamon has had many applications aside from flavoring foods. Egyptians, who imported the spice from Asia more than 4,000 years ago, used it to make incense and to embalm their dead. As an ingredient in both food and perfume, it was beloved in ancient Rome, where myths about its origins included the notion that cinnamon sticks were acquired by thieving them from the nests of large cliff-dwelling birds.

We know now that cinnamon is derived from the bark of the tropical evergreen Cinnamomum tree. (The Arab traders of antiquity knew this also, but it was in their interest to allow others to believe that their rare spices had exotic origins.) The bark, which is harvested during the rainy season, when the texture is more pliable, dries into quill-like curls that are cut into cinnamon sticks or ground into powder. Cinnamon’s characteristic flavor and heat are a result of the spice’s volatile oils. Because of this, commercial producers grind cinnamon bark cryogenically—meaning at very low temperatures—to avoid decreasing flavor and aroma.

The most popular dishes made with cinnamon in past centuries bear little resemblance to those we eat today. A sauce known as cameline was the common accompaniment for roast meat in Europe in the 14th century. It combined cinnamon with vinegar, salt, and often raisins and nuts; hot chocolate in Spain in the 1600s was a complex combination of cocoa beans, chilies, aniseed, floral extracts, nuts and cinnamon.

Today, the use of cinnamon varies depending on where you are in the world. In the United States, it is most often used in sweets such as cinnamon-raisin bread, cookies, coffeecakes and the like. Savory uses are more common in the eastern Mediterranean, where cinnamon flavors minced-meat fillings and all types of stews, often in combination with allspice. In India, the spice blend garam masala, which incorporates cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and dried chilies, among other spices, is a key ingredient in curry.

What these unrelated dishes have in common, surprisingly, is that they are not made with “true” cinnamon (also known as Ceylon cinnamon). Instead, cassia, a close cousin, is used in its place—its spicier and more assertive flavor is what most tasters would now mistakenly identify as “true” cinnamon. In the United States (unlike in the U.K.), the term “cinnamon” can be legally applied to both Ceylon cinnamon and cassia, so unless you’re shopping at a specialty store that specifies the origins of its spices, the fine print on your spice jar won’t distinguish between the two.

The several different species of Cinnamomum trees yield two general categories of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon and cassia, which have been confused since the spice became popular in antiquity. In common use, “true” (Ceylon) cinnamon has mostly been replaced by cassia, a close cousin that’s spicier and more strongly flavored. Here’s a quick primer to help you choose what’s best for your own kitchen cabinet.

Cinnamon Sticks and Ground Cinnamon: Bark is carefully harvested from different parts of the Cinnamomum tree depending on the end use: Stick cinnamon is sourced from bark on the higher branches, which carry less flavor; bark that will become ground cinnamon comes from larger, older branches on the lower part of the tree, which pack more spicy punch. Cinnamon sticks are unique for their ability to infuse hot drinks with flavor: When sticks are ground, the result is gritty, full of unsightly lumps. They stay fresh for up to three or four years. Ground cinnamon generally lasts at least one year; smell and taste it after that to see if it has lost its pungency.

Ceylon Cinnamon: “True” cinnamon comes from the Cinnamomum zeylanicum tree indigenous to Sri Lanka. About a century ago, its medicinal qualities created such a demand for it in Europe that it became prohibitively expensive; for culinary use, cassia was substituted. The differences between cassia and Ceylon cinnamon can be tasted and also seen—the latter has a lighter-brown color, a more papery and brittle texture, and is coiled in a single spiral shape. Its characteristic flavor is sweet, delicate, mild and subtle; although Americans accustomed to cassia might describe it as weak tasting, it’s vastly preferred in both England and Mexico.

Cassia: Strong and assertive, this spice comes from the Cinnamomum cassia tree and can verge on the harsh and burning (think of the sinus-clearing candies known as Red Hots, for example). Its appearance is different from its milder cousin Ceylon cinnamon; it’s darker in color, and sticks are coiled in a thick, hard double-spiral. Cassia comes mainly from China, Vietnam and Indonesia, and contains more of the phenolic compound cinnamaldehyde than Ceylon cinnamon, which explains its stronger aroma and flavor.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Deep In The Heart of Downtown

Deep In The Heart of Downtown

Downtown Pittsburgh is booming. The Golden Triangle has grown in ways that previous generations may never have envisioned, and the perception of the neighborhood at the heart of Pittsburgh is changing rapidly –– for the better.
And The Winner Is....

And The Winner Is....

Meet the top vote getter in our 2016 Cutest Pet Contest.
The Region's Top Dentists 2016

The Region's Top Dentists 2016

Our latest list includes 368 topDentists in eight specialities from around the region.
Restaurant Review: Smallman Galley

Restaurant Review: Smallman Galley

The first crop of chefs in the Strip District restaurant incubator are four real.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Environmental Art Project to Light Up Pittsburgh Bridge for the Holidays

Environmental Art Project to Light Up Pittsburgh Bridge for the Holidays

Riverlife hopes the temporary project will lead to permanent, decorative lighting of all three of the city's Sister bridges.
Mt. Lebanon-Native Daya Nominated for MTV Video Music Award

Mt. Lebanon-Native Daya Nominated for MTV Video Music Award

It's the first MTV nomination for the 17-year-old singing sensation.
Remembering A Rescuer of Gentle Giants

Remembering A Rescuer of Gentle Giants

Richard Kohl devoted most of his adult life to caring for homeless large-breed dogs.
10 Things You Might Not Know About The Old Allegheny County Jail

10 Things You Might Not Know About The Old Allegheny County Jail

The former Allegheny County Jail on Second Avenue, Downtown, remains one of Pittsburgh’s most iconic pieces of architecture.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Deep In The Heart of Downtown

Deep In The Heart of Downtown

Downtown Pittsburgh is booming. The Golden Triangle has grown in ways that previous generations may never have envisioned, and the perception of the neighborhood at the heart of Pittsburgh is changing rapidly –– for the better.
And The Winner Is....

And The Winner Is....

Meet the top vote getter in our 2016 Cutest Pet Contest.
The Region's Top Dentists 2016

The Region's Top Dentists 2016

Our latest list includes 368 topDentists in eight specialities from around the region.
The 10 Best Smiles in Pittsburgh

The 10 Best Smiles in Pittsburgh

Plus - we poll dentists included in our 2016 list of topDentists for their opinions and tips gleaned from years of experience in their profession.
Restaurant Review: Smallman Galley

Restaurant Review: Smallman Galley

The first crop of chefs in the Strip District restaurant incubator are four real.
A Clear Head, A Cannon for an Arm

A Clear Head, A Cannon for an Arm

After his first taste of big-league ball, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tyler Glasnow is ready for his close-up.
Edit Module

 

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Environmental Art Project to Light Up Pittsburgh Bridge for the Holidays

Environmental Art Project to Light Up Pittsburgh Bridge for the Holidays

Riverlife hopes the temporary project will lead to permanent, decorative lighting of all three of the city's Sister bridges.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
A Thyme and Place

A Thyme and Place

Old friends Tricia Cohen and Lisa Graves reconnect via Facebook and collaborate on a historical cookbook.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

The Best 7 Spots in Pittsburgh to Watch the 2016 Euro Cup

Grab your kits, scarfs and get ready to watch the Euro 2016 Pittsburgh-style. We'll show you where to go to get your fan on.

Comments


After Dark Hall of Fame: Sharp Edge

After Dark Hall of Fame: Sharp Edge

The local pubs that fly the Sharp Edge banner remain a favorite for top-notch beer and tantalizing grub.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Optimism With An Asterisk As Good As It Gets In Steelers Training Camp

Optimism With An Asterisk As Good As It Gets In Steelers Training Camp

Although NFL teams never simply pick up where they left off the previous season, there’s reason to believe the 2016 Steelers could eventually resemble the team that came agonizingly close to knocking off the eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos in Denver last January.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Namaste! Sandals Made from Yoga Mats

Namaste! Sandals Made from Yoga Mats

Sanuk’s Yoga Sling Sandal are super comfy yet chic.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The New Ghostbusters Is a Worthy Addition to the Franchise

The New Ghostbusters Is a Worthy Addition to the Franchise

Reviews of "Ghostbusters" and "The Infiltrator," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
A Whimsical Wedding in Wonderland

A Whimsical Wedding in Wonderland

This Pittsburgh bride brought all the details together for a flawless “Alice in Wonderland”-themed wedding.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Coming Soon: Historic Lawrenceville Building Ready for Makeover

Coming Soon: Historic Lawrenceville Building Ready for Makeover

Real estate crowd-funding platform Small Change Pittsburgh is raising funds to transform the Butler Street building.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Online Education at Edinboro University Nationally Ranked

Online Education at Edinboro University Nationally Ranked

The university landed in the top 10 schools for disabled students seeking an online education.

Comments