Pantry

Is Expensive Cinnamon Worth the Price?

January 20, 2016

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.) 

 Cinnamon Rolls with 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 Simple Syrup

First, a little history: 


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 cinnamonand 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?

Cinnamon

We put cinnamon to the test:

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?

Cinnamon and Rye Shortbread Cookies 

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:

  • If stored in a glass contaner, cinnamon starts to lose its flavor after about a year—make sure to replenish your stock every so often.
  • Powdered cinnamon has a stronger flavor than stick cinnamon, but stick cinnamon lasts longer.
  • Cinnamon quality is often judged by the volatile oil content (which, for ground cinnamon, can be affected by how the cinnamon is processed).
  • If you want your cinnamon to stay at its freshest, keep it in the fridge.

Are you a die-hard cinnamon fanatic? What's your favorite way to use it? Convert me, please! 

33 Comments

Richard April 6, 2017
I use cinnamon everyday. Cinnamon possesses extraordinary health benefits for diabetic patient and also for people who suffer from obesity and cholesterol problems.
 
True C. November 3, 2017
If you use cinnamon regular, you should consider about Ceylon cinnamon. It is expensive. But, it is safe due to ultra low coumarin. Most studies suggest to use Ceylon cinnamon for regular users.
 
Saliya D. September 10, 2016
organic single estate ceylon cinnamon is another step up for those looking for a premium cinnamon. fyi unless you really trust the company that you buy your cinnamon powder from and it is source certified from Sri Lanka I would not trust it. just buy good cinnamon sticks and powder yourself.<br /><br /> www.loveorganics.lk
 
Linda G. March 15, 2016
I ordered from this company and have never looked back...nothing like fresh grated in your coffee, in your dishes, desserts, anywhere you like! Completely different than the powder you find in the stores.<br />https://cinnamonhill.com
 
Jane March 10, 2016
I use Cinnamon everyday! I love Chai Latte (an Indian Spice tea which consist of CINNAMON, nutmeg, cardamon, cloves, stair annise, Ginger, with your choice of milk + sweetener. Cinnamon is the soul of that drink! <br />I also use it in a lot of my baking, like Apple Crumble, Bread & Butter Pudding, Banana Bread, Carrot Cake etc. Cinnamon definitely enhances the treats' flavours!
 
barbara M. March 9, 2016
One of my very favorites is Bastilla (Moroccan/North African) aka Basteeya Martha Stewart - an unusual and amazing marriage of chicken, spices and phyllo, sugar, and cinnamon package - love it!
 
nigel K. March 9, 2016
I love cinnamon sprinkled on prawns in a marie rose sauce,yum.
 
Cookin' J. March 9, 2016
There is a lot of confusion about cinnamon so let's start at the top and work down. All "cinnamon" trees are of the Order Laurales and the Family Lauraceme. Simply put, they are part of the laurel tree family of trees. There are over 50 Genera and 3500 Species in that family which is what leads to much of the confusion. The family includes Genus Laurus which is the source of Bay Leaves whether grown in Turkey, the Mediterranean, or California (I prefer Turkish though the most common and least expensive are from California). Another part of the family is Persea (avocados) and then there is Sassafras, one of the few deciduous trees in the family. As we narrow the focus we come to the Genus Cinnamomum which has some 300 members or Species. One of the Species is Camphora from which camphor oil is extracted. The key is that all of the Cinnamomum Genera are known for their highly fragrant oils.<br />Cinnamon, the spice (big picture), is the inner bark harvested from some of the Species in this Genus of trees. And now the real confusion begins so let's take it bit by bit.<br />Some say there is a true cinnamon and then there is everything else. From my research into the subject this is how I believe the confusion began.<br />If one were to collect a single stick of cinnamon from each of the four types and visually compare them side by side one would notice that three have a thick bark and one has paper-thin layers in its bark (it also crumbles quite easily).<br />The thin-layered one is Cinnamomum Verum (or c. verum, A.K.A. c. zeylanicum and Ceylon Cinnamon). Maybe because it is unique in its layering it became known as "true" cinnamon.<br />Regardless, the confusion came about because then all of the "thick" bark cinnamons were grouped together by early spice traders and called Cassia Cinnamon. Even Wikipedia makes this grouping mistake. This is what leads to the incorrect conclusion that more cassia is imported to the US than any other cinnamon.<br />In the "thick" bark group of cinnamons there are three primary species in use: c. cassia (China or Chinese Cinnamon), c. loureiroi (Vietnamese Cinnamon), and c. burmannii (Indonesian or Korintje Cinnamon). 50% of the world's production of cinnamon (all types) is Indonesian. 33% is Ceylon and that leaves a paltry 17% to be split between Chinese and Vietnamese. By far, Chinese and Vietnamese cinnamon are the most expensive.<br />Indonesian or a blend of Indonesian (generally with Ceylon and Chinese) are the typical store-shelf cinnamons in the US.<br />Thank you spice traders for confusing the heck out of us for all these years!
 
Kt4 March 16, 2016
Fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing :-D
 
Sandy P. November 15, 2018
Don't suppose you could go the rest of the way and tell us about the flavors of these four, and what they are best for?
 
Cookin' J. November 15, 2018
Ceylon cinnamon is the "standard" in the UK, Mexico, and South America so I use it in recipes that originate in those areas. It has a slight floral nose and a mild citrusy aftertaste. Korintje most closely approximates the supermarket cinnamon my mom bought long, long ago in the red can. It has a warm nose and a smooth flavor that works well in custards, bread pudding, and stovetop cooking (an 1/8 tsp works wonders in a large pot of tomato-based sauces, Tex-Mex chili, and other hearty dishes). I also use it in meat rubs, marinades, and BBQ sauce. Chinese and Vietnamese contain eugenol, the essential oil that gives them their "bite." Think Red Hots. I use both in baking. Vietnamese tends to be sweeter so I use it in sweet-forward recipes (like cinnamon rolls) and I use Chinese when sugar-like sweetness isn't an issue (like apple pie).<br />In all cases quality matters. If you buy cheap cinnamon expect all of them to taste nearly the same. Spend a bit more, store them away from sunlight and heat, and people will notice the difference each makes in your recipes.
 
Kali March 9, 2016
A friend who is a Greek food aficionado (and somm) made pastitsio, a much richer version of lasagna. It was out of this world. I like cinnamon in a lot of tomato-based dishes. Not so much that it's very forward, but enough to add contrast and emphasis to the fresh acidic taste of tomato. <br />A little bit in chicken tagine is wonderful. Certain kinds of pickles (watermelon rind, bread and butter, red onion quick pickles). <br />Homemade stocks. Hot chocolate or frothed with milk for espresso or coffee. Roasted squash (especially if it's kept savory with smoked paprika, etc).
 
Susan G. March 9, 2016
I buy Penzey's Cinnamon Chunks and put about 1/8 tsp into my coffee grinder with the beans every morning.
 
Lisa March 9, 2016
I use a good bit of cinnamon at my house. I think the key thing is its freshness. You might consider grinding your cinnamon stick in a mortar. Little electric coffee mills are notorious for leaving chunky bits. Or you could start it off in the mill & finish it up in the mortar.
 
Patricia March 9, 2016
After doing some research for the health benefits of cinnamon for diabetics I found that the cinnamon most commonly marketed in the USA, which is the Cassia type, can be toxic to our liver. I threw all I had in the trash and opted for the safer variety, which is the Ceylon. The Cassia or Vietnamese cinnamon can be especially toxic to children according to some of the articles I found online. I found the same information on several different websites. The general statement on Cassia was this: cassia can contain high levels of coumarin, a naturally occurring ingredient that, when eaten in large enough amounts, can cause liver toxicity in a small group of individuals sensitive to it. One source I read was from an article by a Dr. Fuhrman who wrote: Recent studies have revealed that regularly consuming Cassia cinnamon powder could be problematic, resulting in potentially harmful levels of coumarin intake. For example, one study estimated that small children eating oatmeal sprinkled with cinnamon a few times a week would exceed the established safe upper limit of exposure. Similarly, they concluded that adults who are heavy consumers of culinary cinnamon or take powdered cinnamon supplements could also reach potentially unsafe doses. You might want to check it out if you are cooking with a lot of cinnamon.
 
Cookin' J. March 9, 2016
Patricia<br />There appears to be consensus among the European health agencies that says 0.1 mg/kg of body weight does not exceed tolerable intake levels of courmarin. A person weighing 130 pounds would have to consume in excess of 1tsp of c. cassia per day to exceed European TDI levels of coumarin. These studies assume 100% of what you are eating will be metabolized--bad assumption. BTW, the EU says a lethal dose of coumarin is 275mg/kg of body weight. A 130 pound person would have to consume 8 pounds of c. cassia in one day to reach that level of toxicity. If you are all that worried about coumarin you need to give up eating strawberries, cherries, and apricots (among others) as they too contain coumarin.
 
Kpath March 9, 2016
We use stick cinnamon (Ceylon) in home made applesauce and veal stew. Cassia on my bagel every morning. I get all of our spices from Penzeys.com and avoid supermarket spices as much as possible.
 
Becky H. March 9, 2016
What about Vietnamese Cinnamon, i love the stuff...
 
Elida M. March 9, 2016
I use a stick of cinnamon when making "arroz con leche" (rice pudding). You can also use powder cinnamon in meat balls, to give them a Turkish touch !
 
Bunni J. March 9, 2016
I am the world's biggest cinnamon fanatic!! I put it in everything you can possibly imagine, including a cinnamon rubbed baked chicken and sprinkled over sautéed Brussel sprouts with a dash of lime. I could go on and on. I use it daily on my coffee and we're not talking a dash of cinnamon here- easily a half teaspoon! I love it!<br />It's health benefits are amazing and it helps with inflammation and type 2 diabetes. Vietnamese is by far my favorite though I have tried all four types described previously but use the sticks for mulled cider and tea, hot almond milk, etc. I tried Ceylon cinnamon for its stated health benefits, but the price is ridiculous. Vietnamese has more flavor and helps the joints just as well. <br />Finally, I buy my spices exclusively from World Spice Mercants in Seattle. They deliver through the mail and I have had some great comments from my postal carriers and co-workers who wanted to know exactly what made my mail smell so good. The mailman even said his mail truck smelled heavenly for a week!! Though I am now a vegetarian, the rest of my family still enjoys meat so If anyone has unusual ideas for cinnamon, please share!
 
Olympia February 13, 2016
Cinnamom,great health benefits. We used it every day!
 
Cookin' J. February 12, 2016
Catherine there is a ton of misinformation floating around on cinnamon. About 1/3 of the world's production is Ceylon (c. verum) and most of it goes to Mexico, Central and South America, and our friendly Brits. With its milder flavor (lower essential oils) its complex flavor profile really shines through and it has a slight citrus note in its aftertaste. Because it is mild, it is not the favorite in the US.<br />Roughly half of the world's production is Indonesian (c. burmannii), also known as Korintje. This is by far the most common and least expensive cinnamon available. Because it contains no eugenol, the essential oil that gives cinnamon its "bite," it is usually blended with a small amount of Chinese (c. cassia) cinnamon and, in some brands, a little Ceylon cinnamon. By far this blend is the most common cinnamon on American store shelves.<br />Approximately 1/6th of the world's production is split between Chinese (c. cassia) and Vietnamese (c. loureiroi) with most of it being cassia. Both have a strong "bite," the flavor and heat found in red hots, but the Vietnamese tends to have a slightly sweeter flavor profile.<br />I use and love all four. I use Ceylon in custards and other baked goods where I want a mild complex flavor that will compliment other flavorings/tastes. Korintje is my favorite in coffee and other hot drinks (and for stovetop cooking) where I want a more assertive flavor but no bite. Chinese is my go to cinnamon when it is blended with other spices for baking (apple pie, pumpkin pie, etc.). I reserve Vietnamese, the most expensive, for cinnamon bread and cinnamon rolls where I want a super strong cinnamon flavor.<br />Yes, I love cinnamon!<br />BTW, Ceylon cinnamon (c. verum) in stick form (quills) looks like a bunch of layers of light brown paper and it crumbles very easily. The quills of all the other types of cinnamon are a single thick layer that is nearly impossible to crumble by hand.<br />I have no problem storing any of the cinnamons for a year or more in tightly sealed glass jars. But then, I store them in a dark cabinet away from all heat sources. Friends who store their spices (and dried herbs) in racks hanging on a wall or in shelves near their cooktop/oven don't have the same experience.<br />
 
meg March 9, 2016
I have read that the sticks that are coiled like a snail are cassia and the ones that curl both sides to the middle are the more expensive or desired varieties.<br />I'm sorry that I don't recall the exact ones named. Maybe John should have been writing the article since the author admits not really liking cinnamon.
 
Greenstuff January 20, 2016
Some years ago, I brought a lot of cinnamon home from Madagascar. It didn't come in finely coiled sticks, but rather in pieces that could clearly be recognized as bark. I really liked grinding it up an using it--what your tasters described as gritty, I found to be an inviting texture, like adding nuts or cacao nibs.
 
[email protected] January 20, 2016
You said storing cinnamon in glass is not the best. What is the best container for storing cinnamon?
 
Roberta J. January 20, 2016
I would suggest buying small amounts and using it up. I keep mine in 2 ounce glass jars, but that would only last me six months at most. I tried small metal canisters, but the oils in spices made the metal lids cranky to open.
 
Lori January 20, 2016
You should investigate the health benefits of Ceylon over cassia. Very interesting. You can get a pound of Ceylon on Amazon for about $20.