I will admit: I have never been the biggest fan of cinnamon. I tend to think of it as an easy way out: Throw a little bit of the familiar spice in there to mask the toughness or dryness or overall meh-ness of the cookie underneath.
(The notable exception, of course, is cinnamon rolls, which obviously need their namesake spice—though I suspect that I only like them for their blanket of cream cheese icing.)
Yes, I concede that a little dash of cinnamon—applied sparingly—can give a nice buzz of warmth to plenty of dishes, from traditional oatmeal cookies to refried beans. Perhaps I'm jaded from bad experiences with chalky, day-old confections from the supermarket. But when I find myself in the spice aisle of the supermarket, hunting for cinnamon to use in mulled wine or wintry stew, I often reach for the cheapest option. And if I'll only be using a couple shakes in each dish, why shouldn't I?
Recently, though, while putting other household staples to the test, I began to wonder if cinnamon was, in fact, the place to cut corners. Perhaps the reason I had never loved it was because I had been buying the bottom-shelf brands. So I decided to do a little research to see if cinnamon is, in fact, worth the splurge.
(Side note: Whatever you do, no matter who double-dog dares you, do not attempt the cinnamon challenge. Things will not end well.)
More: I revoke my anti-cinnamon prejudice when it comes to infused cocktails.
Cinnamon has been around for a long time. Ancient Egyptians used the spice as a flavoring and a medicine, as well as an embalming agent. A Chinese book on botanical medicine, dated around 2700 B.C.E., also mentions cinnamon's healing properties. Today we mostly use it for cooking and baking, but there are some who swear by its high levels of antioxidants. (Read more about cinnamon's health benefits here.)
What many people don't know is that cinnamon is actually tree bark. Specifically, it's harvested from the inner bark layer of several varieties of evergreen trees in the genus Cinnamomum. This genus is split into two species: Cinnamomum verum, known as Ceylon cinnamon, and Cinnamomum cassia, or Cassia cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon originates from Sri Lanka, while Cassia cinnamon contains three species of international importance: C. cassia (China), C. burmanii (Indonesia), and C. loureirii (Vietnam).
Both types are technically cinnamon; Ceylon cinnamon, despite its name of verum, is no more true a cinnamon than Cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is, however, widely considered to be superior, both in terms of flavor and health perks.
So which type are you most likely eating in that cinnamon roll? Odds are, it's Cassia. Cassia cinnamon accounts for over 80 to 90 percent of the cinnamon imported into the U.S., and constitutes the vast majority of cinnamon sold in grocery stores, both in powdered and stick form. Ceylon is much rarer, but you can still find it at the grocery or health food store—though it will probably cost you a pretty penny.
But is Ceylon cinnamon worth the price differential? Will Cassia cinnamon do just as well? And should you really be grinding your own?
The first grocery store I visited did not sell Ceylon cinnamon or cinnamon sticks, so I bought a budget brand (certainly Cassia). At Whole Foods, I found a fancy brand of Ceylon cinnamon and also purchased three cinnamon sticks. (The label did not specify which type of cinnamon they were and the clerk didn't know, either, but my online research told me that most cinnamon quills sold for food are Cassia, which is softer and crumbles more easily.)
I ground the sticks in my coffee-cum-spice grinder. It only took a few blitzes for them to break down initially, but even when I pulsed and pulsed, the end result was still fairly grainy. When laid out next to each other, the three types were easily distinguishable: the Cassia cinnamon was the darkest, the Ceylon cinnamon was the lightest, and the ground sticks were a bit chunky. They smelled the strongest of cinnamon, followed by Cassia; Ceylon's subdued scent brought up the rear.
I first tested the cinnamons in the form of my favorite cinnamon-infused cookie: snickerdoodles. However, I realized that the reason I liked it might be the very reason it wasn't giving me any solid data: No one could detect enough cinnamon flavor to give me a definitive preference. Perhaps the tang of cream of tartar was too overwhelming?
So I moved on to a cookie that promised to pack more of a spicy punch: Cinnamon and Rye Shortbread. Here, the results were more conclusive—though not what I expected:
Of my ten or so testers, nobody liked the version with the stick-ground cinnamon. They described the texture was "gritty" and "unpleasant." A few people complained that the flavor was a bit bitter. Maybe the sticks I got from Whole Foods were past their expiration date? Or maybe cinnamon sticks should be left to infusing mulled cider.
When tasked with choosing between the Ceylon and Cassia cinnamon cookies, my testers were pretty split. The cookies made with Cassia cinnamon had a "stronger, sharper cinnamon flavor" that "hit your tongue right away." The cookies made with Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, had a "more subtle spice" that "grew as you chewed." In terms of which cookie they preferred, Cassia had a slight majority—but no one was strongly on one team or another.
I suppose this means that, for now at least, I'll keep reaching for the cheaper Cassia cinnamon in the spice aisle. Maybe someday I will gain enough cinnamon appreciation to purchase the good stuff.
A few more cinnamon tips:
Are you a die-hard cinnamon fanatic? What's your favorite way to use it? Convert me, please!