The primary scent of my elementary school days is the unmistakable waft of cinnamon. Whenever I ran into my parents’ minivan after school with a gold star on my homework, the instant reward I got was a one-way ticket to the Cinnabon kiosk at the local mall. As a kid of the suburbs, there was no greater opulence than tearing into that squidgy dough rolled in cinnamon sugar and smeared with thick gobs of icing. I won’t say these rolls are the only reason I tried hard to get good grades. But knowing those swirls of warming spice lingered just a few miles away was certainly excellent motivation.
Since then, I’ve graduated from mall treats to canned peel-and-bake buns to the cinnamon rolls I now make from scratch. In my house, we go through cinnamon like it’s water.
In buying bottle after bottle of cinnamon, though, I’ve noticed that various brands are remarkably different — in color, scent, and even flavor. But how can that be? Flip each jar around and the ingredient listed is always the same: “Cinnamon.” With a hodgepodge of questions, I set out to understand precisely what cinnamon is and why it differs so greatly from bottle to bottle. Turns out the answer is much more than what’s listed on the spice jar.
What is cinnamon?
Cinnamon is a cultivar from the inner bark layer of different evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. Once the cinnamon bark is shaved off from the tree stump, it naturally takes on a coiled shape. The processing method continues when the bark is dried, portioned into smaller segments for cinnamon sticks, or processed into a fine powder for ground cinnamon.
A brief history of cooking and baking with cinnamon
A swirl of cinnamon runs throughout thousands of years of history. The earliest records date back to 2,000 BCE in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, when the spice was also used as a perfume for embalming. In the kitchen, cooks valued cinnamon because it helped to salvage food from spoiling easily, plus it offered sizable flavor. Asian and Middle Eastern countries, too, have long used cinnamon to flavor meat dishes. It’s believed that cinnamon began to be used in European-style baking applications when the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka and controlled the spice trade of its native Ceylon cinnamon for over a century (1505 to 1658). The Portuguese introduced the love cake, a European-style cake that, following their departure, the Sri Lankans adapted by adding local ingredients like cashews, rose water, and cinnamon.
After the Portuguese came the Dutch, followed by the English, who all sought to control a spice that, at the time, was a symbol of European wealth and a vehicle for global trading power. But as cinnamon saturated the market, the spice lost its place as a luxury, plateauing in price in the late 1700s. Around this time, some favorite cinnamon treats started popping up: most notably, the cinnamon roll. The first iteration is presumed to have emerged in 17th century Sweden; after similar buns appeared all over Europe, the style migrated to the United States by way of German settlers, paving the way for some people’s (not naming names here) lifelong infatuation with the plush, gooey baked good.
Different types of cinnamon
Considering the arborous origins of cinnamon, it seems fitting to examine the main varieties of the spice through a family tree. But before we get started, it’s worth mentioning that these select few are deemed the “main” types of cinnamon due to their wide commercial availability in the U.S. There are, however, hundreds of local, non-commercial cinnamon varieties used for various purposes — baking, cooking, and medicine — all across the globe.
Cinnamon is split into two primary categories: Ceylon and cassia. Often referred to as “true cinnamon,” Ceylon (Cinnamomum verum) began the spice trade when it was originally unearthed in Sri Lanka during the Age of European Exploration. The cassia category, meanwhile, is broken down into the three main types: cassia, Saigon, and korintje, all of which share similarities in color, aroma, and spice level. Cassia cinnamons can hail from China (Cinnamomum cassia, or cassia), Vietnam (Cinnamomum loureirii, or Saigon), or Indonesia (Cinnamomum burmannii, or korintje).
The cinnamon many of us grew up with in the States — the one we toss into our shopping carts at the start of every autumn — is most often one of the three types in the cassia category (cassia, Saigon/Vietnamese, korintje/Indonesian), because they're consistently cheap to produce and import. Korintje and Saigon, specifically in that order, are the two most frequently sold in ground cinnamon bottles at big-box stores. When you flip over to check out the ingredient list on a bottle and unfurl a shocking revelation — “ground cinnamon” — you can assume it's one of these two. Now you’ve solved that mystery.
A notch more inaccessible, Ceylon cinnamon is worth procuring due to its mild, delicate taste. Your best bet here is to check out a specialty grocery store or mail-order spice company. Latin grocers, in particular, are great stockists for canela, the Mexican name for Ceylon cinnamon. In his tome On Food and Cooking, food scientist Harold McGee makes the flavor distinction between Ceylon’s “more subtle and complex [flavor], with floral and clove notes” and the cassia varieties’ punchiness, described as “bitter and somewhat harsh and burning, as in the American ‘red-hot’ candy.” In other words, Ceylon suggests its flavor profile while its three cassia cousins are a tad more in-your-face about it.
|Country of origin
|Light brown, thin skin, crumbly
|Dark red-brown, thick skin
|Deep, dark red-brown, thick skin
|Lighter red-brown, thick skin
|Mild, floral, citrusy
|Spicy, slightly bitter
|Rich, sharp, spicy
|10% of U.S. spice market, popular in Asia and Mexico
|Part of Chinese five-spice powder
|Affordable, most of U.S. spice market
|Bread, pastry, champurrado, cinnamon rolls
|Ice cream, cream pies, chocolate, stewed fruit
|Cinnamon rolls, coffeecakes, baked oatmeal
|Quick bread, cookies, cinnamon rolls
What makes cinnamons taste different from each other?
Differences in flavor potency among cinnamons can be attributed to a couple of interdependent factors. The age at which the cinnamon bark is harvested plays a role in determining a metric called the volatile oil content. In cinnamon trees, this is defined by many different compounds, but 65% to 75% of the composition is cinnamaldehyde, the primary component to give off taste and odor. The higher the cinnamon’s volatile oil content, the more cinnamaldehyde it contains, and the stronger the flavor it imparts.
The cassia category (cassia, Saigon/Vietnamese, korintje/Indonesian) generally scores big on volatility. Saigon cinnamon is usually considered strongest in flavor and routinely has the highest volatile oil content. Korintje comes in second place for high volatile oil content, with a smoother finish and less bite compared to Saigon and cassia.
However potent, cinnamon's spice levels can easily peter out while sitting in stores many months after being processed and packed. Take that into consideration the next time you’re shopping for cinnamon:
Baker's tip: There’s a reason most cinnamon breads you see aren’t cinnamon dough breads; they’re all done with a swirl instead to keep the cinnamon isolated from the yeast. That's because cinnamon is a yeast inhibitor — you can’t use more than 1 teaspoon per 3 cups of flour in a dough without it slowing down the rise significantly.
What’s coumarin and why is it in cinnamon?
There’s a bit of controversy surrounding a toxic compound often found in cinnamon. The culprit is coumarin, a flavoring compound found in higher doses specifically in cassia cinnamons. Before you chuck out that jar on your spice rack, just know that coumarin is naturally occurring in a wide variety of natural flavoring agents that bakers use on a regular basis, including vanilla and citrus fruits, and it needs to be consumed in very large quantities to have any sort of negative effect. The standard amount called for in a baking recipe is completely fine for you — no need to worry!
Ground vs. whole: what’s the difference? And when do you use each one?
Ground cinnamon and cinnamon sticks are like fraternal twins: same but different. As its name implies, ground cinnamon is the dried inner tree layer that’s been pulverized into a fine powder. A cinnamon stick is that same bark, only it left the party before the spice grinder was brought out. They run in different social circles; each one is the perfect companion to different dishes.
For infused creams and stocks, the cinnamon stick is your pal. You'll have to take the stick out once you’re done steeping, whereas with ground cinnamon there’s obviously no need. Because ground cinnamon is essentially a powder, it has a large surface area, meaning it releases flavor almost immediately upon a sprinkle or stir: steep time not required.
And before you ask, yes, you can use ground cinnamon instead of a cinnamon stick, and vice versa. Use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon for every 1 cinnamon stick called for in a recipe. Ceylon, due to its papery, good-for-grating crumbly texture, is the easiest to break down, but it’s the thicker-skinned cassia that’s usually in those ambiguous jars of “cinnamon sticks.” The rule of thumb is to blitz Ceylon with a spice/coffee grinder and cassia with a rasp grater to get what’s needed in recipes calling for the powdered stuff.
What to make with each type of cinnamon
There’s no shortage of baked goods these different cinnamon varieties can shimmy their way into, and for that reason, the application of cinnamon is one big flavor equation with endless opportunities.
Based on their unique taste characteristics, here’s a guide and a few recipe ideas to help you get the most out of each cinnamon variety.
Try as you might, Ceylon has zero interest in being the center of attention — it’s mildly aromatic and sweet, rather than big and bold. What piques its interest instead is to demonstrate its subtle complexity in delicate, thoughtfully introspective mannerisms. If Ceylon cinnamon were a book, it would be The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
You’ll get delicious results when you incorporate it into Zwieback and Spiced Peach Muffins — basically, any bake that summons cinnamon to proffer a dainty hint. In The New Sugar & Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking, baker and food stylist Samantha Seneviratne uses Ceylon to make blueberry custard tarts and cinnamon, hazelnut, and date buns — recipes where, as she writes, “the spice isn’t competing with a lot of other flavors.” Craving cinnamon and chocolate? Arturo Enciso of Gusto Bread shared his take on the traditional Mexican elixir, Champurrado, and it’s a showcase of warm cocoa, luscious sugar, and gentle spice at their prime.
Cassia is an ingredient in Chinese five-spice, a blend utilized for savory stews, rice, and meats in Asian cooking that can also be employed in a number of cuisines and cooking methods. When compared to Ceylon, cassia is noticeably deeper in color, with ambrosial, woodsy spice. Its exuberance, though wonderful, “should be used in small amounts to avoid giving dishes a bitter flavor,” writes Fuchsia Dunlop in The Food of Sichuan.
Tiny amounts bode well incorporated with rich, creamy agents that tone down any lingering intensity. I suggest putting it toward blended desserts with a decent amount of fat to calm the spice. Have a go at Cinnamon Ice Cream and Delicata Squash Pie. Cassia also pairs well with liqueurs, chocolate, and even stewed fruits (apples especially).
I wouldn’t be shocked if right before going into a bowl of ingredients, Vietnamese cinnamon sang the intro verses of young Alexander Hamilton in the titular Broadway musical. “There’s a million things I haven’t done, just you wait ... just you wait …” Saigon cinnamon is an overachiever in the best, most intense way. And it was born to be a star; depending on the brand, Saigon contains between 4% to 5% volatile oils, which emanate that signature spice and heat we immediately associate with cinnamon.
It’s the obvious choice when you’re making Cinnamon-Streusel Coffeecake or Apple Cinnamon Baked Oatmeal, where cinnamon is the headlining act. Of course, it’s faultless in
Another stellar recipe is pastry chef Zoë Kanan’s Thinking About Vietnam Banana Bread. Here, Kanan pours her batter into a prepared loaf pan, sprinkles Vietnamese cinnamon on top, and gently swirls it through with a knife. “This simple step,” she tells me, “yields a loaf with bites of gentle banana comfort and bites of more intensity that showcase the beauty of the spice.”
Of the Cassia trifecta, Indonesian cinnamon is the gentlest. “Pure aromatherapy and grandma’s hug in a whiff,” is how baker Marcy Goldman puts it in The Baker’s Four Seasons. Really, there’s no one-upping that. Indonesian is the cinnamon specifically called for in these Sparkling Spice Spritz Cookies and this homey Yuletide Bread, which both dazzle on any holiday party spread (if they even make it that far).
Haven’t had your full helping of pumpkin spice vibes for the season? Bring it home with these Harvest Pumpkin Scones; they make room for mellow Indonesian cinnamon should you tinker with a DIY pumpkin pie spice blend. And if you’re all pumpkin-ed out, remember you always have cinnamon rolls. I liken a roll made with Indonesian cinnamon to a grown-up Cinnabon: one that’s moved someplace posh, tasted the finer things in life, but maintains a soft spot for a good suburban mall.
King Arthur offers a number of different cinnamons so you can choose the one that's best for your baking. Try sweet, mellow Indonesian cinnamon or big, bold Vietnamese cinnamon in your favorite recipes.
Cover photo by John Sherman.