Cinnamon, a distinctively fragrant spice associated with warm baked goods and holiday cheer in the West, has the honor of being one of the most expensive and sought after spices in history. The bark of a pretty evergreen tree native to Asia, usually the Cinnamomum verum or the Cinnamomum zeylanicum, cinnamon was at one time so desired it was almost currency. Though it is now significantly less valuable in monetary value than, say, one thousand years ago, the spice is coveted by many cooks across the globe.
Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tree in the Cinnamomum genus. The tree is native to exotic locales such as Sri Lanka and India, though it now grows in several other regions with similar climates. The cinnamon itself can grow anywhere from 10 to 50 feet in height, and has dark-green ovate leaves. Though they are rarely sought out, the tree does bud small yellow-green flowers and tiny purple berries. The outer layer of bark is rough, brittle, and inedible; the more delicate/tender inner layers, which deliver nutrients throughout the tree during its life, contain concentrations of fragrant oils which give cinnamon its characteristic scent and flavor. During harvesting the inner bark is pulled back in small sheets, which roll in on themselves like carpets – these are the cinnamon “sticks” or quills we recognize. The quills can be used intact or ground into a fine powder, and their flavor is wonderfully warm and just a bit sweet, with a touch of spicy heat depending on variety.
Cinnamon is very often confused with cassia, and it is not unusual for one to be sold as the other – the two plants are similar in appearance and smell, and their usage is essentially identical (and to make things even more confusing cassia is sometimes referred to as Indonesian or Chinese Cinnamon). Close inspection can help separate the two: true cinnamon quills will be papery, brittle, and light tan in color; cassia is generally thick, hard, dark in color, and wound up in a double spiral. Ground cassia will also be darker and coarser than true cinnamon, and its flavor more intense – the burning, spicy cinnamon associated with novelty candies and the like are actually closer in flavor to cassia, while real cinnamon is generally mild and more delicate.
Cinnamon is one of the few herbs and/or spices which seem to be utilized by a number of world cuisines. It may presently be most famous for its role in Western and European dessert and fruit dishes, but cinnamon still makes frequent appearances as a mainstream non-dessert spice in Middle Eastern, African, and Indian cuisines (curries, taugines, masalas, etc.). The spice is most commonly used in baked goods like cakes, muffins, pastries, cookies, pies, cobblers, and – of course – cinnamon buns. It can be added to flavorful spice blends, such as moles, and has also been used to flavor liquors, syrups, and even mulled wines. Cinnamon pairs particularly well with sugar and chocolate, and seems to unfailingly enhance apples.
Cinnamon also has a phenomenal back story. It is mentioned multiple times in the Bible, was used as a gift for several different royal families, and was coveted by some of the greatest empires in history. The Egyptians used it in the embalming process, stuffing it into body cavities before burial, and the Greeks used it to scent the fires of funeral pyres; Emperor Nero famously burned a “year’s supply” of the spice during the funeral of his wife to signify the depth and magnitude of his loss. Cinnamon later helped motivate trade-route expeditions, fueling the European desire to cash in on the profitable spice market without buying from outside traders. There was a certain amount of heroism at stake in addition to the money – cinnamon itself was shrouded in mystery, and was rumored to grow only in treacherous wastelands guarded by venomous snakes. The rumors were, of course, false (most likely started by the original Arab traders to protect their product), and eventually cinnamon became more widely available for enjoyment.
The spice also has some medicinal properties which are notable. It has a history of use as a cure for colds, digestive problems, gingivitis, bad breath, colic, and nausea. Cinnamon’s essential oils also have antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, and their warm and aromatic compounds are believed to help with circulation and/or cold hands and feet. Recent research has also revealed that cinnamon shows promise an anticoagulant and in controlling blood sugar.
Use and Storage
Cinnamon can be purchased ground or in rolled quills. Both will keep for some time when stored in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.
Use It (How to/where)
- in cookies, cakes, pastries, and pies
- with sweet baked fruits like apples
- in spice blends for curries and garam masala
- to season sweet “veggies” like carrots, pumpkin, or squash
- paired with chocolate
- sprinkled with sugar onto yogurt or cottage cheese
- stirred into warm oatmeal and cereals
Recipe using Cinnamon
Mexican Hot Chocolate
4 cups milk
½ bar dark or milk chocolate (or as much as you desire!)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Cocoa powder (garnish)
Warm milk in small saucepan over low heat. While milk warms, melt chocolate in a double boiler or gently in microwave. Stir melted chocolate into warm milk. Stir in cinnamon. Portion milk mixture into mugs. Top with thin layer whipped cream. Garnish with cocoa powder and additional cinnamon.
NOTE: There is a new fade using cinnamon that is rather dangerous, it is called the “Cinnamon Challenge“. We don’t recommend completing the challenge as cinnamon is a caustic substance; this means that it is able to burn, or corrodes organic tissue due to a chemical reaction”.