Will the Real Cinnamon Please Stand Up?
Both Cassia and Ceylon cinnamon are harvested from evergreen trees in the Cinnamomum genus. Cassia cinnamon (C. cassia) is by far the most popular in the U.S., while Ceylon cinnamon (C. zeylanicum) is the commonly used variety in many other countries.
Harvest involves pruning, rather than cutting down the trees. Trees are coppiced, or pruned nearly to the ground, encouraging the formation of many small shoots. Cinnamon trees would naturally grow to 30 feet or more in height, but under cultivation they resemble large bushes. Properly tended cinnamon trees are a long-lived resource and a good source of income for their growers, although stripping and drying the bark is labor-intensive.
Cinnamons can be purchased in several forms. Cinnamon sticks generally have the rough outer bark removed, although I do have a basket of decorative, aromatic, foot-long sticks of Cassia bark. Many of us have stirred a cup of mulled cider with a Cassia cinnamon stick. Sticks of Ceylon cinnamon look rather different; the inner bark is thinner, softer, and lighter in color. Rather than the sturdy, hollow curl of a Cassia stick, Ceylon cinnamon sticks are filled inside like a cigar.
Ground cinnamon is most commonly found, as it's easy to incorporate in foods or even in festive cinnamon-applesauce ornaments. Older, thicker cinnamon bark may have even more flavor but doesn't roll nicely into sticks when cut. Along with leftovers from the cinnamon quilling process, these pieces are either ground or sold as cinnamon chunks. Try adding a few bits to your coffee filter basket, teacup, or potpourri. Cinnamon oil is extracted from both the leaves and from the bark to be used in many products, recipies, and craft projects. Handle it with care, as undiluted cinnamon oil can burn and even blister your skin. I recently came across a source for Cassia buds, dried unopened flowers said to have a lovely cinnamon flavor with sweet floral overtones.
Cinnamons from different regions may have different flavors and intensities, depending on the cinnamon oil they contain. Korintje Cassia is the cinnamon most likely found on your grocery store shelf, while the more intense Chinese and high grade Vietnamese Cassia cinnamons usually must be bought at a specialty store. Most Ceylon cinnamon, not surprisingly, comes from Sri Lanka, known until 1972 as Ceylon.
While Cassia cinnamon is most commonly used in the US, Ceylon cinnamon is the one you'll find in Mexican cooking and European baking. It adds a wonderful touch to hot cocoa or tea. What it lacks in boldness, it makes up for in delicate floral and citrus overtones. Chocolate and Ceylon cinnamon is a magical combination. For a brownie with Tex-Mex appeal, add Kahlua™ instead of water to your favorite packaged mix, then stir in a half teaspoon of Ceylon cinnamon. I've also dusted Kahlua™ truffles with a beautiful buff coat of Ceylon cinnamon.
Ceylon cinnamon is a necessary ingredient in Chinese 5 spice, a wonderful finishing ingredient for garlicky stir fry dishes. Indian curries often include cinnamon to add a sweetness that deepens the flavor of the other spices. My Thanksgiving Turkey Mole´ dish wouldn't be the same without the cinnamon in the Mexican chocolate. I like to use Ceylon cinnamon together with cumin. When cooking a pot of dried lima beans and onions with ham hocks or a smoked turkey leg, I add a teaspoon of cinnamon and two teaspoons of ground cumin. Cincinnati style chili is distinctive in its use of cinnamon, although sources disagree about which variety of cinnamon to use.
While Cassia cinnamon will always be my first love, I've got a definite flirtation going on with its cousin, the "true" cinnamon from Ceylon. Here in the U.S., if you want the aroma and flavor of Grandma's kitchen, Cassia cinnamon is the one you want. But if you want to add a rich and delicate flavor to baked goods or ethnic cuisine, add Ceylon cinnamon to your spice cabinet!
This quantity is sufficient for a full 8-quart pot of bean and meat chili.
My thanks to Penzeys, the herb and spice sellers whose catalog first taught me about the different types of cinnamon. All the ingredients in the above chili seasoning mix can be found at www.Penzeys.com. (My only affiliation with them is as a happy customer.)
For additional information about Ceylon cinnamon, take a look at the following sites:
Harvesting Ceylon cinnamon, described by Science2day.info
Article on Cinnamon varieties and flavors included in a commercial site for cooks. (I have no customer experience with this site)
www.ceylon-cinnamon.com, an informative commercial site (I have no customer experience with them.)
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.
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