Saturday, August 27, 2005

Cinnamon



A little while back I made my first Penzeys purchase. I needed a large quantity of poppy seeds (for those awful Poppy Seed Wafers) and had calculated that buying several McCormick's bottles would be more expensive than buying an 8-ounce bag from Penzeys, even with shipping figured in. Of course, that was based on the assumption that I wouldn't go on a buying spree at Penzeys. But how could I not?

Actually, I think I showed admirable restraint. I bought some black peppercorns (which I needed anyway), some shrimp and crab boil (I need to keep working on liking shrimp, don't I?), and four kinds of cinnamon. I don't even remember why I was looking at the cinnamon now, but at some point while reading about the different varieties I decided it would be interesting to try them all and do a little taste test.

As soon as they arrived, I covered each label with paper marked with a letter - A, B, C and D. I put the jars up on a shelf and out of mind.

In the US, the term cinnamon may be used to refer to the bark of several species within the genus Cinnamomum. In fact, most of what is sold as cinnamon in the US is Korintje Cassia (C. burmannii) imported from Indonesia. True cinnamon, or Ceylon Cinnamon (C. verum or C. zeylanicum), is not typically found in US grocery stores, though it may be purchased in specialty shops and can be ordered from Penzeys and similar sites. My order also included China Cassia (C. cassia or C. aromaticum) and Vietnamese Cassia (C. laoureirii). There is another member of the Cinnamomum genus that is used in food - Indian Cassia (C. tamala or C. tejpata) - though it is the leaf of this variety of cassia that is most commonly used.

Cinnamon and cassia have been used in cooking for thousands of years. There are references to them in the Bible, and in Egypt they were used for embalming. They were once very, very expensive - so much so, that elaborate (and untrue) stories arose concerning the effort required to collect the spices. According to Herodotus, cinnamon and cassia were gathered in Arabia, apparently at great peril to those doing the gathering. Cassia was said to grow in a shallow lake with frightful winged creatures roosting nearby. No one knew where cinnamon grew, but the twigs were found in the nests of large birds. The nests were precariously perched on steep cliffs which couldn't possibly be scaled by any man. To collect the sticks, the Arabians would leave large chunks of ox carcass under the nests. The birds would carry these to their nests which would then collapse from the weight, and fall to the ground where the Arabians waited to gather the cinnamon sticks.

Today, cinnamon or cassia sticks come from the inner bark of upper branches and are quite mild in flavor compared to ground cinnamon. The bark used to produce ground cinnamon comes from lower side branches (grade B) or from the main trunk (grade A), which are older and have a much stronger flavor. Higher grades of cinnamon have a higher percentage of volatile oils in them.

Today I finally got around to conducting my taste test. I tried to be somewhat methodical about it. First I sniffed each one to try to characterize the aroma of each. At the same time I took note of the appearance. Then I tried to mix each with some hot water and see which if any "balled up". The reason for this test is that Korintje Cassia has a higher percentage of gum (mucilage) and tends to ball up when mixed with hot water, while the other types form a thick suspension. Finally, I mixed each with some sugar (one part cinnamon to two parts sugar) and tasted.


Clockwise from top left: China Cassia, Ceylon Cinnamon, Korintje Cassia, and Vietnamese Cassia

The Ceylon Cinnamon (C. zeylanicum) was immediately identifiable by its relatively pale color and mild flavor. It has a light, cinnamony flavor but with none of the heat of the other varieties I tasted. Its aroma is very faint, not at all sharp, but recognizably cinnamon.

The Vietnamese Cassia (C. loureirii) was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The aroma didn't seem as sharp to me as the China Cassia, but it was spicy hot to taste! It was my least favorite because I felt the heat overwhelmed the flavor, but the real test would be how it tastes when used in cooking. Interestingly, Penzeys recommends that you use two thirds the amount of cinnamon called for when you use Vietnamese Cassia.

China Cassia (C. cassia) is deep brown in color and has a sharp cinnamony scent. It has a nice, warm cinnamony taste - spicy, but with more of a slow burn. The heat builds in your mouth, but to me was less powerful than either the Vietnamese Cassia or the Korintje Cassia. Penzeys says that this is their best seller that it is spicier than Korintje.

Korintje Cassia (C. burmannii) is what I know as cinnamon. It is medium reddish brown in color and has a bright cinnamon aroma. It has a nice cinnamon flavor with a little fire - spicy and bright.

We've reached the end of my post, but I expect this is just the beginning of the story. I would have liked to have made four batches of cinnamon buns and done side by side comparisons, but that just wasn't feasible. I'll report back from time to time as I use these different types of cinnamon. I'm sure I'll find reasons to love them all!

14 comments:

Joe said...

Penzey's has been my spice source for awhile. I've tried I think all of their cinnamon but Vietnamese Cassia is my favorite

Nic said...

Great post, Cathy! There are so many wonderful things to add cinnamon to, I wish I could help test them.
Of course, I have to advocate cookie testing. Any good Maida recipe? I spotted this one on all recipes for Cinnamon Cookies (http://cookie.allrecipes.com/az/CinnmnCksII.asp). The reviews are so good I'm tempted to make them now. And I'm sure the cookie panel wouldn't mind one more batch of cookies... =)

Niki said...

I found this really interesting, as I'm a BIG fan of cinnamon. I've been trying to research the type we get most commonly in Australia, but it's hard to find accurate information.

Santos said...

thanks for such an informative post. i would've just licked each one and said "eh. i like that one." :D

Cathy said...

Hi Joe - I expect I'll like the Vietnamese Cassia a lot once I tried it baked in something - it is supposed to be the best!

Hi Nic - Thanks! I think cookies will definitely figure into the process somehow! The recipe you found does sound good - especially with one of the the stronger flavored ones.

Hi Niki - Thanks! According to what I've read, in Europe and the UK cinnamon refers only to C. verum (also know as C. zeylanicum). The other varieties are called cassia. I'm not sure that this is consistently true, though. I did a search on the Australian Google and found references like this: "cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia)".

Hi Santos! In the end I guess that's what it comes down to!

Stephanie said...

I stay away from the computer for a few days, and see what I miss???

Penzey's is fabulous. My FIL is a big spice-buyer, and he will often (generously) share with us.

I love to cook with cinnamon; when I make my Oven-Fried Pecan Chicken, I'll throw in smoked paprika, chili powder and cinnamon; what a great flavor.

And may I add: a friend (and mother of SIX!) named one of her daughters Cassia.

Alice said...

The Vietnamese is my favorite as well....I really think you are going to like it a lot better when you bake with it. I think it really elevates normal cinnamon sweets into superb cinnamon sweets. I'll be anxious to hear more about your experiments with these!

Cathy said...

Hi Stephanie - Penzey's is great - wonderful selection, wonderful quality, and they throw in free samples! That combination of spices sounds really interesting, though I admit I have trouble imagining what it might taste like - may just have to try it! Oh, and I think Cassia is a beautiful name - did her parents have the spice in mind when they named her?

Hi Alice - can't wait to try cooking with the Vietnamese Cassia. Do you reduce the amount you use in a recipe or just go ahead and use the full amount?

Alice said...

I go ahead and use the full amount...it really takes the cinnamon flavor to extremes, and I don't ever find it to be too spicy or overpowering. I've had a lot of compliments on things I've made with this cinnamon and I really think it's the cinnamon...not whatever thing I've happened to make with it.

Stephanie said...

I have no idea...but I suppose they were trying to give their kids something special to hold on to, what with their plan for twelve!

Cathy said...

Alice - thanks, that's good to know!

Stephanie - yikes, twelve!!!!

Ann said...

Once you go Penzey's, you never go back!

Shauna said...

Cathy,
I've been trying to learn more on cinnamon since a couple months ago when my uncle bought a "better" cinnamon while at my sister's house and expressed the difference in cost being worthwhile. He's a careful spender (overall frugal)but said, "Cinnamon is something you shouldn't cut corners on... makes a big difference in taste." I've been sprinkling some in my morning coffee, so I really began to wonder about that quality/taste difference. (Immediately I figure the ol' $1.00 plastic shakers I buy in local discount stores is WAaaaay off! lol) Even years after you posted, yours is one of the most informative and useful sources I've found. Thank you so much! I'm leaning toward trying both the Ceylon/Sri Lanka and the Vietnamese cinnamons now. Mmmmmm!

Shauna said...

Cathy,
I've been trying to learn more on cinnamon since a couple months ago when my uncle bought a "better" cinnamon while at my sister's house and expressed the difference in cost being worthwhile. He's a careful spender (overall frugal)but said, "Cinnamon is something you shouldn't cut corners on... makes a big difference in taste." I've been sprinkling some in my morning coffee, so I really began to wonder about that quality/taste difference. (Immediately I figure the ol' $1.00 plastic shakers I buy in local discount stores is WAaaaay off! lol) Even years after you posted, yours is one of the most informative and useful sources I've found. Thank you so much! I'm leaning toward trying both the Ceylon/Sri Lanka and the Vietnamese cinnamons now. Mmmmmm!