Cinnamon Explained: Everything To Know About This Kitchen Staple

There is so much more you can do with cinnamon.

Cinnamon Explainer

Matt Taylor-Gross

Cinnamon is one of the most commonly used spices in the world, seasoning sweet and savory cooking from Pho in Vietnam to Coquito in Puerto Rico. But although you probably have a jar of ground cinnamon in your pantry, you may not be using it to its full potential. 

There’s a lot to learn, and love, about cinnamon. We spoke to Sam Fore, cinnamon connoisseur and chef/owner of Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites in Lexington, Kentucky, about the types of cinnamon available and how to get the most out of the spice.

What is cinnamon? 

Cinnamon is a spice derived from the Cinnamomum tree (also called the cinnamon tree). It is obtained from the inner bark and can be cultivated as a stick or ground into powder. There are four types of cinnamon trees, all of which originate from the Cinnamomum genus: Cassia, Ceylon, Royal, and Saigon.

One of the earliest spices traded in ancient history, cinnamon is native to South Asia and eventually found its way around the world through the spice trade. In addition to culinary applications, cinnamon was and is still widely used for medicinal purposes across cultures; it is believed to have antioxidant, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory properties. 

How do you use the different types of cinnamon?

“Cinnamon has so many uses,” says Fore, noting that she believes that cinnamon is widely underused, despite how irreplaceable it is in sweet applications like a Snickerdoodle or Cinnamon Rolls. “People haven’t been challenged enough to use it. It’s my secret weapon; different types of cinnamon have different qualities.” 

Fore says that when you put cinnamon in savory dishes, it adds a layer of spice-depth without adding spicy heat – whether it’s that note in a Massaman Curry or Chicken Curry. These flavor notes are part of why Fore says we should experiment more with cinnamon.

RELATED: One Simple Trick Makes Cinnamon Rolls Look Gorgeous 

The types of cinnamon

Cinnamon Explainer

Matt Taylor-Gross

Ceylon cinnamon

Native to Sri Lanka, Ceylon cinnamon is much thinner, fragile, and smoother than other cinnamon. “The nice thing about Ceylon cinnamon is that it’s pretty malleable. It has a nice and light fragrance and taste,” says Fore, who uses this variety in the brine of her fried chicken. “It lends itself well to adding a nice spice without heat.”

Cinnamon Explainer

Matt Taylor-Gross

Cassia cinnamon

With a bittersweet flavor, Cassia cinnamon has dark, thick, and coarse quills. It is one of the more commonly found cinnamons in the U.S. Cassia can be used in either stick or ground form. “A lot of times you’ll see powdered cinnamon from cassia bark, because it's a bit harder to use unless it's ground down,” Fore notes.

Mexican cinnamon sticks, also known as Canela, are actually Cassia cinnamon sticks. Almost exclusively imported from Sri Lanka, because cinnamon is not grown in Mexico. 

A stick of Cassia cinnamon can add flavor to stews like Oven-Braised Veal Stew with Black Pepper and Cherries or drinks like this Spiced Rum Coffee. Or, use ground cassia cinnamon for desserts like pumpkin pie or churros.

Cinnamon Explainer

Matt Taylor-Gross

Saigon cinnamon

Saigon cinnamon has been used medicinally for inflammation for centuries. In the kitchen, it’s used to develop a more intense cinnamon flavor; Saigon cinnamon is considered to be the strongest variety in flavor because it contains more oils than other cinnamon. Whole sticks are used to season pho, while ground is used in baking, 

Cinnamon Explainer

Matt Taylor-Gross

Royal cinnamon

Fore says Royal cinnamon is best used for baking sweets, since its flavor is sweeter and not as earthy as other cinnamon varieties. It is harvested in Vietnam (not near Saigon) and can be harder to find, but is worth seeking out for special baking projects. 

RELATED: How to Make Cinnamon Syrup (and 3 Great Cocktails to Use It in) 

Where can I get cinnamon?

While you’ll most commonly find Cassia and Saigon cinnamon in big-brand grocery stores, you can also check out the spice section at your local Asian market or online purveyors like Burlap & Barrel, Spicewalla, and Diaspora Co. for more diverse cinnamon varieties. Fore says taking the extra step to source quality cinnamon is worth it.  

“It can be daunting to get started cooking into the diverse world of cinnamon because not all cinnamon is created equally,” she notes. “I would recommend buying little packages of each type and experimenting with each one. Be tactile. For example, thicker barks are more suited for stews because they won’t break as easily. I love to break it down and add it to oil before I start cooking to add some spice without heat, or throw the whole stick into a curry to let all the goodness come out.”

To further explore cooking with cinnamon, check out Fore’s Tempered Curry-Ginger Sweet Potatoes, this recipe for Parsi Ground Pork Cutlets with Tomato Gravy, or this Lamb, Sweet Potato, and Coconut Mafé Curry recipe.

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