When it comes to cinnamon, make sure you're barking up the right tree
Cinnamon isn’t a mystery to most of us. After salt and pepper, it’s probably the seasoning we become familiar with as children, in the form of comforting cinnamon toast, oven-warm cookies, and the warm apple cider that sustains us through the winter months. It’s just… cinnamon, right?
Well, yes and no. All cinnamon comes from the inner bark of trees in the genus Cinnamomum, but it branches out from there. Cinnamomum Verum is sometimes referred to as “real cinnamon,” but other varieties, especially cassia, may be even more familiar to our palates, because that’s what we grew up eating.
So should you spend time and cash seeking out the “real” stuff, and is it palpably better tasting, smelling, and all that jazz? There was only one way to know for sure: via a blind tasting by the Extra Crispy staff, plus a few hardy volunteers from our office mates at Food & Wine. One trip to New York City’s Kalustyan’s market netted us 10 different forms of cinnamon in stick, quill, chip, and powder form, but how do you actually evaluate them side by side? The “cinnamon challenge” technique of taking a spoonful straight to the face was out of the question because that’s stupid, and snorting seemed ill-advised, so we settled on making a tea with the solid varieties, and an ersatz cinnamon and sugar toast with the powder.
The team numerically rated each variety on excellence of taste and smell, as well as giving feedback on how closely it resembled the definitive cinnamon of their childhood canon. Just a few points separated the top couple of contenders, followed by a distinct drop-off to the next tier down, and free-fall to the absolute bottom. And those weren’t even necessarily terrible—just far less potent than their counterparts at the top of the heap.
Here's how it all shook out.
10. Ceylon Cinnamon Quills
Well, we were warned. The package states that Ceylon cinnamon has a much lower volatile oil content (just one to two percent) than other forms of the stuff, as well as a fraction of the coumarin that brings distinctive flavor to cassia cinnamon and tonka beans, but may be fraught with some health perils. The label suggests that it might make for a medicinal tea with minimal side effects, but really—don't bother. It would taste like hot water that's been haunted by a cinnamon stick.
9. Indonesian Cinnamon Sticks
These sticks are touted as "the most familiar" and ideal for cinnamon buns and look like the quintessential hot beverage accoutrement, but the brew it makes is dull as dishwater. It could actually be dishwater for all it resembles the spice you'd imagine warming your stomach and soul on a cold night.
8. Indian Cinnamon Sticks
Dalchini, a kind of cassia, hails from the hills of Kerala and the Malabar Coast. At 2.7 percent, it boasts a higher oil content than those tepid Ceylon quills, and the label suggests that it is ideal in curry, rice pilaf, and biryani. Perhaps only consider it if you like your food to taste and smell, per our tasters' notes: "medicinal," and "like a moldy tree that an elephant peed on."
7. Ceylon Cinnamon Sticks Thin Bark
This'd be your Cinnamomum Verum, "true cinnamon," or "Mexican cinnamon" (even though it's native to Sri Lanka) and the label purports that it's the cinnamon of choice for "dishes which do not have a lot of conflicting flavors." It's got a warm, woody, nutmeg-like flavor to it, but I'd be remiss if I did not include Extra Crispy editor Ryan Grim's achingly specific comment: "Tastes like sad Christmas, like the first one a son didn't come home after dying in a war, or studying abroad."
6. Chinese Cinnamon Powder
This lowest-ranked of the powdered cinnamons comes from the bar of evergreen trees in Southeastern China and clocks in at three to four percent volatile oil. It's got a notable odor—by various accounts "cat boxy," "earthy," and "new car smell, like a cabbie's scent tree," but doesn't make much of an impression on the flavor front, other than a kiss of heat that tends to linger.
5. Cassia Chips
Don't bother baking with these shards of bark, but keep plenty on hand for hot beverage season, because they bring a familiar, full, homey, cider-like note to whatever you'd care to steep them in.
4. Ceylon Cinnamon Powder
I wrote in all caps: "IT'S FINE. EXTREMELY AVERAGE." and Ryan likened it to the Yankee Candle paradigm of what cinnamon is. It's the same cinnamon as the previous Ceylon sticks and quills, but the grinding concentrates its flavor into something that approximates the cinnamon of our team's collective youth.
3. Saigon/Vietnamese Cinnamon Chips
This Central and Northern Vietnam-grown cassia packs four to five percent volatile oil content, spurring a fierce reaction—and plenty of explanation—from the panelists. Per Extra Crispy culinary editor Rebecca Firsker: "Classic! Nostalgia!" Food & Wine's deputy editor Mel Hansche declared: "This one is yelling at me, 'I am cinnamon, hear me roar!'" Even Ryan, notedly stingy with the emphatic punctuation, wrote: "Best of the teas. King of the teas. All hail!"
2. Saigon/Vietnamese Cinnamon Powder
"This is my platonic cinnamon, and I want it on my person at all times," I wrote, and I stand by it. This, too, is a high-impact cassia that just slightly bests its stick counterpart with an even more pungent blast of flavor and scent that more than one tester referred to as "classic," or likened to the Red Hots candy of their childhood.
1. Indonesian Cinnamon Powder
Korintje cassia nabs the cinnamon crown. It was neck and neck at the end, but this Java- and Sumatra-cultivated spice from the Cinnamomum Burmannii plant edged ahead not due to nostalgia or potency, but rather because its two to three percent oil content allows for a wild, earthy spice to build, but not overwhelm. It's a sophisticated upgrade from the grocery store shaker stuff, ideal for sweets and meat rubs, and at $3.99 for two ounces (that's a hefty amount), it's an affordable thrill you can indulge in every day of the week.