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 ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Nothing beats listening to Mike Lange describe a Penguins' goal.
Break It Down: Byham Theater

Break It Down: Byham Theater

When you walk into the Sixth Street entryway of the Byham Theater, Downtown, you will see patches of green and black tile on the walls: These are originals from the early 20th century, says John Mumper, facilities manager at the Byham. The grand theater has plenty of history to go with its 100-plus years; let’s break it down.
 Wiz Khalifa to Headline Thrival 2017

Wiz Khalifa to Headline Thrival 2017

It’s the first time a Pittsburgh artist is headlining the annual innovation and music festival.
“What Did We Miss?” Designing a Voice for Grief

“What Did We Miss?” Designing a Voice for Grief

The Center of Life in Hazelwood partners with Carnegie Mellon University for a very powerful exhibit.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
Remembering Henry Hillman

Remembering Henry Hillman

Reflecting on the impact of the businessman, civic visionary and philanthropist.
How David Freese is Helping to Keep Pirates' on Course

How David Freese is Helping to Keep Pirates' on Course

The Pirates’ infielder emerges as a team leader — and an offensive powerhouse.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Nothing beats listening to Mike Lange describe a Penguins' goal.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Station's Hours Expand and Le Lyonnais Opens Downtown

Station's Hours Expand and Le Lyonnais Opens Downtown

Station, the excellent Bloomfield eatery, now offers lunch service. The Big Y Group opens a French bistro in the space previously occupied by Sonoma Grille.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

The third outpost of local distillery Wigle, found in the Omni William Penn Hotel, is an instant destination for cocktail fans.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Time Running Out for Penguins to Respond to Senators

Time Running Out for Penguins to Respond to Senators

The Penguins suddenly have a lot to sort out as they attempt to respond to another disappointing playoff loss.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Pittsburgh on a Plate

Pittsburgh on a Plate

The way to a beer lover’s heart is mapped out on notNeutral’s plate, which highlights Pittsburgh breweries (and other points of interest) across the city.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The Alien Series Jumps the Shark with Covenant

The Alien Series Jumps the Shark with Covenant

Reviews of "Alien: Covenant" and "Everything, Everything," as well as local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Disney Touches: Two Couples Take on the Fairy Tale Wedding

Disney Touches: Two Couples Take on the Fairy Tale Wedding

See how these couples brought a little Disney magic into their wedding festivities

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
 Curious About Passive Houses? Take the Tour

Curious About Passive Houses? Take the Tour

Lucyna de Barbaro and Ayres Fritas are opening their ultra energy-efficient duplex in Squirrel Hill to the public.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Explore Your Future with Point Park University

Explore Your Future with Point Park University

The university will host three summer workshops for high school students from July 17-20.

Comments