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.