Saturday, August 27, 2005
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!