Culinary Arts

What Is Cinnamon? How to Cook With Cinnamon Spice

Written by MasterClass

May 15, 2019 • 3 min read

One of the most popular spices worldwide, cinnamon lends its distinctive spicy-sweet kick to all manner of sweet and savory dishes. In the spice aisle, you can find whole cinnamon sticks in addition to ground cinnamon powder and cinnamon extract.

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What Is Cinnamon?

Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the inner bark of the tropical Cinnamomum tree (colloquially known as the cinnamon tree), sold as rolled quills (cinnamon sticks) or ground into a fine powder. The cinnamon bark, or phloem layer, can be harvested from the trunk or outer branches, with cinnamon from the trunk being more expensive. Cinnamon contains several aromatic compounds, the most recognizable of which is cinnamaldehyde, which gives cinnamon its spicy bite.

4 Different Types of Cinnamon

There are several different species of the genus Cinnamomum sold for culinary use, including:

  • Cinnamomum cassia, aka cassia or Chinese cinnamon: The most popular variety in East Asia and the US, cassia cinnamon has dark, thick, and coarse quills in a double-spiral shape, and a bittersweet, burning-spicy flavor due to high levels of cinnamaldehyde. Its high essential-oil content makes cassia one of the more pungent varieties of cinnamon.
  • Cinnamomum loureiroi, aka Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon: Vietnamese cinnamon often gets lumped in with cassia cinnamon since they’re more closely related to each other than to other varieties of cinnamon, but they’re still different species. Vietnamese cinnamon may have the highest levels of cinnamaldehyde and coumarin (a flavor compound also found in tonka beans) of all the cinnamon varieties. Cinnamomum loureiroi flavors the broth for pho and other Vietnamese soups.
  • Cinnamomum burmannii, aka Indonesian cinnamon: Native to Southeast Asia, Indonesian cinnamon is less spicy than cassia and Vietnamese cinnamon, but lacks the eugenol found in Ceylon cinnamon. Its thick quills are red-brown on the outside and gray-brown on the inside. Indonesian cinnamon is used in beef rendang.
  • Cinnamomum verum, aka Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Ceylon, or true cinnamon: Native to Sri Lanka and popular throughout South Asia and Mexico, Ceylon cinnamon quills are thin, brittle, and smooth, with a single spiral that’s tan on the outside and dark red-brown on the inside. In terms of flavor, it’s more delicate than cassia cinnamon, with less cinnamaldehyde and more floral and clove-like notes (from linalool and eugenol, respectively). Try Ceylon cinnamon in Mexican dishes such as arroz con leche and carnitas.

A Brief History of Cinnamon

Cinnamon has been harvested by humans for thousands of years: It’s been used medicinally in China since at least 2,500 BCE, and its antibacterial properties made cinnamon useful as an embalming agent in Ancient Egypt and as a seasoning for meat in the days before refrigeration. In the seventeenth century, cinnamon became the most profitable spice for the Dutch East India Company, kicking off its domination of kitchens all over the world.

What Are the Health Benefits of Cinnamon?

Cinnamon has been an important medicine for thousands of years, used to treat everything from bronchitis to heart disease, but the actual health benefits remain somewhat murky. Claims that cinnamon can lower blood sugar levels and reduce glucose and cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes, improve blood pressure, and stimulate weight loss are currently unsupported by scientific research.

Cinnamon is, however, antimicrobial and antifungal, which is why it’s often found in dental-hygiene products and is sold as cinnamon supplements. It’s is also a good source of antioxidants, substances that inhibit the effect of free radicals (reactive atoms that can damage cells). Due to its anti-inflammatory nature, cinnamon is currently being researched for its potential to fight Alzheimer's disease and decrease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer.

9 Savory Recipe Ideas Showcasing Cinnamon

Cinnamon isn’t just for dessert! It’s been used to flavor meat for thousands of years, and found in many savory dishes including:

  • Moroccan chicken, chickpea, or lamb tagine
  • Middle Eastern chicken shawarma
  • Greek braised chicken kapama
  • Anything seasoned with Chinese five spice powder or Jamaican jerk seasoning, such as grilled chicken
  • Indian butter chicken
  • Rice pilafs, including Persian jeweled rice and Indian biryani
  • Mexican cochinita pibil tacos
  • Beef chilli
  • Roasted squash

7 Cinnamon-Centric Dessert Recipes

Cinnamon is found a huge variety of sweets:

  • Breads, such as cinnamon rolls, hot cross buns, and morning buns
  • Cookies, such as snickerdoodles, rugelach, and baklava
  • Apple desserts such as baked apples, apple pie, apple crisp, and apple crumble
  • Rice pudding
  • French toast
  • Churros
  • Pumpkin, squash, or sweet potato pie

3 Warm Beverages Featuring Cinnamon

Cinnamon is an essential flavoring for beverages like:

  • Mulled wine or glogg
  • Spiced apple cider
  • Mexican hot chocolate and horchata