Did you know you probably have never actually seen or tasted real cinnamon? If you have ground cinnamon in your pantry or spice rack, chances are its not real cinnamon.
Inconceivable! It says cinnamon on the label! You say.
The cinnamon you buy pre-ground most likely not true (sometimes called Ceylon or Sri Lankan) cinnamon unless labeled as such, it is cassia or a cassia blend. That’s right you most likely have a cassia cuckoo in your pantry! Real Ceylon cinnamon is quite a bit more expensive than cassia, and is very rarely used in commercially produced ground cinnamon spice in the US and Europe. Other countries it varies so if you don’f fall into those categories you may actually have true Cinnamon.
But do not despair! Both have great uses, many overlapping uses, and are relatively easy to get a hold of these days. But first, a history of Cinnamon. Cinnamon is one of those old and long used spices like many others we have discussed, China, India, and the classical world all were familiar with it. Cinnamon was most frequently used in food through history, but it was also used in a few other unique ways. Egyptians used it in their embalming process, continental Europe used it in religious ceremonies. Nero, otherwise known as biggest dick of all the Roman Emperors, was known for his no expense spared funeral for Poppea, who while she was pregnant, Nero may, or may not have, kicked to death. He had massive amounts burned with her funeral pyre. It was about the equivalent of a year’s supply of cinnamon for all of Rome. Cinnamon was well known before in Rome for burning on funeral pyres but, until Nero, never in such a lavish amount. Fun side note, after her death he had a boy that looked like her castrated, dressed him to look more like Poppea and he married him. Called him by her name to boot. Yup. That happened.
Like with other spices we mentioned, people also wanted to keep the location secret to keep prices high, cinnamon is another spice that has some early myths surrounding it that really tickle my fancy. It seems the taller the tale, the taller the price for the spice, and this is a tall one. Herodotus, and some others, wrote about the cinnamon bird who it was told lived in Arabia. This bird was apparently carnivorous and liked to build its nest on the side of cliffs, and those nests were said to be made of sticks of cinnamon. So the brave collectors of cinnamon would leave large pieces of raw oxen in a tempting location, and the unsuspecting cinnamon bird would schlep the giant pieces to their nests. Which would turn all their nests into some sort of meat and cinnamon delicate jinga scenario, that immediately collapses under the weight of all that delicious oxen meat. Thus, allowing them to collect the cinnamon, and the “danger” allowed them to command a high price.
You have to wonder if the merchants telling this did so elbowing each other in the ribs and snickering behind their hands. Not all were fooled though, Pliny called shenanigans on them but this myth still persisted for quite some time. Cassia was also mentioned by Herodotus, but was much easier to obtain since you only had to make leather hazmat suits and fight off screaming bats, so therefore it cost less. Cause, you know, bats are much less scary than oxen eating birds. Obviously. (If you want to see the original text, go here)
Next, stop buying pre-ground spices!
That’s right don’t do it! Pre-ground spices quickly lose their flavor, as you have breached the plants natural way of retaining the all important oils, and that means taste and benefit are drifting away as soon as you open the container. Personally, pre-ground are a waste of money since they go bad after such a short amount of time, and it is easy to hide things in them so you don’t really know how much of the real spice you are getting. Invest in a cheap coffee grinder (you want to keep this separate from your normal coffee grinder unless you want interestingly spiced coffee 🙂 ), a good heavy mortar and pestle, or even a dedicated 1 cup food processor is great for spice grinding. You will notice the difference in taste and smell immediately. And you can store whole spices longer since the oils are contained with in their natural casings. If you must buy pre-ground spices of any sort, do it in small amounts that you will use up within a few days.
So how do you tell the difference between the different types of cinnamon apart?
Visually there are a lot of clues to tell these apart when they are whole, much more difficult to distinguish after being ground.
This china native has now moved to be cultivated over most of southern and eastern Asia now, and is sometimes called Chinese cinnamon due to its country of origin. Between cassia and true cinnamon, cassia is the stronger flavored of the two, it is peppery, fiery cinnamon taste you think of when you think of spicy cinnamon candies or beverages. It is that strong flavor that makes it so preferred in US markets since that is used mostly for breakfast, alcoholic, or dessert items. Globally both true cinnamon and cassia are used in all sorts of medical uses and dishes and drinks, savory and sweet.
You will notice its darker color, reddish brown bark. It sometimes will come with a second inner bark, or very curled but you will know it by how thick the bark is. It also does the double roll so it looks almost like a B. This would destroy your coffee grinder if you tried to put it in there too, cassia is extremely hard compared to true cinnamon. The bark texture will also be rougher, more bumpy.
Historically cassia has been used for joint pain swelling and stiffness, due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Many cultures used it as a mouth rinse for painful, swollen gums, or to treat infections since it is a great anti-bacterial properties. It is occasionally used to treat respiratory issues, the common cold, as well as menstrual issues. All of these are properties it shares with true cinnamon.
Cassia cinnamon is good to use in cooking sweet or savory in whole stick form like in mulled wines, or in stew or soup-like dishes. You can use a micro-planer to shave it which is great in cinnamon rolls or other pastries/desserts. Use this in dishes where you want a strong flavor that packs a big, palate dominating punch.
Cassia cinnamon is also significantly more toxic than true cinnamon, the compound in it that makes it so useful is coumarin. Coumarin has all sorts of claims made about it, most recently its been touted as a diabetes medicine since it helps to regulate blood sugars. But large amounts are toxic, its actually one of the dangers of the cinnamon challenge, don’t try it at home folks! With cassia containing so much more than true cinnamon it is easier to move into the toxic range with smaller amounts. Regular consumption of cassia has the potential (not 100% proven but why chance it?) to cause liver damage, small amounts of it are OK, but it should never be taken regularly over a long period of time.
Even with coumarin there are other benefits to consuming small amounts of cassia occasionally. Cassia is a good addition to foods to help with fighting indigestion, stomach upset, or preventing “wind.” It has also been used in the past for its antibacterial properties, and like we discussed with ginger, sometimes your immune system needs a helping hand. This time of year is usually that time for illness, and that can be compounded by pain treatments with corticosteroids since they wreck your immune system. Adding a big of cassia to your tea or food can give you that extra edge in helping fight off illnesses and the common cold, like in the Ounce of Prevention Tea you can throw a stick of cassia in occasionally with your true cinnamon quills. Just don’t do it every day.
There are also recent studies into its effectiveness on helping keep blood sugar levels more stable, and could help stimulate insulin production, but there are not enough studies done for it to be deemed a sure fire thing. But even so, a little couldn’t hurt. Topically it works great for muscle spasms, and helps act as an anti-inflammatory both of these are reasons that cassia cinnamon works so well with digestive and bowel issues. I would rate its effectiveness about the same as cloves for pain, it works well for minor muscle aches and pains and should probably be mixed with other oils to make a stronger concoction to treat severe pain. It is also a great topical anti-fungal remedy. All of these healing properties are shared with true cinnamon as well.
Cassia Massage Oil
- 1 oz Carrier Oil
- 20-30 drops Cassia Oil
- optional – any additional oils to help I suggest Pine, Cloves, Nutmeg since they all blend well and are great for this time of year.
Mix well, store in a dark bottle, apply directly to affected areas and massage in. Use this topically to rub into sore, stiff, or inflamed muscles that could use some warming relaxation. Remember this is a warming oil, avoid sensitive skin areas!
Here are some good ways to add cassia cinnamon to your diet.
Cassia Zimtsterne (Cassia Cinnamon Cookies)- this is a traditional German or Swiss cookie recipe, you can find the original recipe here. These do take a lot of work but are well worth it.
- 2 cups finely ground almonds not blanched, plus 1/2 cup more as needed
- 1 1/2 tablespoons cassia cinnamon
- 4 large egg whites
- 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- granulated sugar (for rolling out)
Grease and flour several baking sheets and set aside. Combine the 2 cups of almonds with the cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until frothy and slightly thickened. Beat the powdered sugar into egg whites, 1/2 cup at a time, beating well between each addition. When all the powdered sugar has been added, beat the mixture 5 more minutes. Remove approximately two thirds of the egg white mixture and blend it together with the almonds. Cover the remaining egg white mixture with a damp cloth. Add the lemon juice and zest to the almond mixture and use your hand to blend all the ingredients together to form a cohesive mass. Allow the mixture to rest for 10 minutes.
To test the consistency, try rolling out a small piece on a board dusted with granulated sugar. If it is too sticky to handle, add more ground almonds, by the tablespoon, until it is manageable. If the dough crumbles or falls apart, add a few drops of lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of the reserved egg whites. When the dough has reached the proper consistency, dust a pastry board lightly with granulated sugar. Shape the dough into a flat round and dust the surface lightly with sugar. Pat the dough out into a rectangle 3/8 inch thick. Remove the cloth from the reserved egg whites. Use a metal spatula to smooth an even coating of the glaze over the entire surface of the rectangle, just enough to cover it completely with white. To smooth the surface further, dip the spatula in hot water and run it across the glaze. Make sure you have not used up all the egg whites, as you will need a small amount to glaze the scraps after they have been re-rolled after you make your first cuts. Cover the egg whites again with the damp towel to prevent them from drying out. Fill a cup with hot water. Cut using a star-shaped cookie cutter, if you want to be traditional, any cutter will do, dipped into the hot water each time you cut, leaving as little space between stars as possible. Place the stars on the prepared baking sheets, leaving 3/4 inch between each. Knead the scraps together; adding additional ground almonds so that the dough can be rolled out. Roll out, glaze, and cut as before. Allow to dry at room temperature, on the baking sheets, overnight.
Preheat the oven to 275F. Bake one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the stars are firm and the glaze has dried. Do not allow them to color. If they are browning, prop the oven door open with the handle of a wooden spoon. Remove the stars to a wire rack to cool completely before storing, at least 1 month, in airtight tins.
I have heard it is generally traditional to make these after Thanksgiving and then hide them in a sack, or pillow case, to age until Christmas. You can also just roll them into balls the size of walnuts, and roll them in icing sugar instead of glazing them.
Another recipe which is great for this time of year is Mulled Wine, mulled wine is generally associated with the winter months and Christmas time since it is warmed spiced wine, and will be known by a different names and contain different things depending on the country of origin of the recipe. Since Texas has a large German population you sometimes even see this sold as a pre-spiced bottle of wine, but it is so much better when you make it yourself. Also, this wine is a great after dinner wine since it will help with digestion and help with any holiday over indulgence.
Glühwein (German Mulled Wine)
- 1 Bottle Red Wine (a Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot all work any dry red wine will work really)
- 1 Lemon sliced into medallions
- 3 Oranges sliced into medallions
- 6 sticks of Cassia cinnamon
- 8-10 Whole cloves
- 3 tablespoons Honey
- 3-5 Whole Star anise
- optional additions: 1 cup brandy (or rum), cardamom pods, fresh grated nutmeg (about a 1/4 tsp), 1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger.
You want to put all of the ingredients, except the citrus and any items from the optional list. Heat on a low heat and do not boil, crock pots on low are great for this since the temperature will be consistent. Once the wine is heated through, add the oranges, lemons and anything from the optional list and heat for an additional 45 minutes. Again do not allow the wine to boil. You can add more or less honey (or sugar) depending on your tastes. You will want to strain the wine before serving into warmed glasses or mugs. You can garnish with a stick of cassia and orange slices. The additional options do make it less authentic, but don’t be afraid, be creative and create a recipe you like. You can use Ceylon in this as well since it goes wonderfully with citrus, if you go this route make sure to use a mellow wine like a Pinot Noir so you don’t overpower the true cinnamon.
A final bonus, during this time of year I fondly remember making cinnamon ornaments as a little girl. These are most definitely not edible, but they do last a very long time if you store them flat wrapped in tissue paper. My mom still has a few I made and they still smell of cinnamon all these years later.
Cinnamon Ornaments (not for eating!)
- 1 cup Cassia cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon Ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon Ground nutmeg
- 3/4 cup Apple sauce
- 2 tablespoons Glue (most craft glues will do well here, you want something that dries hard)
Mix everything well in a bowl you want to make a pretty dense dough, if you need to add more moisture add more applesauce, if its too wet add more cassia cinnamon. Roll out dough on a work surface dusted with cinnamon to about a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut with cookie cutters, and use a straw to punch holes for ribbons for tying to presents or for hanging from a Christmas tree. Bake at 200 degrees for 2-3 hours or until dry, you can also leave these in a sunny spot for about a week. Thread onto ribbons and enjoy! You can also decorate them with glitter or other fun things to make them more personal.
Now on to true Cinnamon!
True cinnamon is very easy to spot, it only curls one way and will have many tiny layers and be very, very brittle. They almost look like small scrolls of paper with the multi-layers and the single roll. It is a spice you can easily put in your spice grinder without fear of damage to the grinder like cassia. You will also notice if you compare them cassia is quite rough and true cinnamon is very smooth, almost silky, velvety to the touch. It will be more tan, or camel in color than the reddish brown of the cassia. The term for whole cinnamon “sticks” is quills, but you may see them referred to with either term in recipes. The taste of true cinnamon isn’t as strong as cassia, it is sweeter, more delicate. It is sometimes known as sweet cinnamon because of this. It works great in desserts and sweet things, but it is used in ones that are more subtle and require a delicate flavor. It almost has a vanilla smell, but more floral. I highly recommend trying cinnamon in with your red meat recipes like chili, or in a rub, you will be amazed at how well it pairs with savory dishes. When you purchase this remember to store it in a dry, air tight container and you can just crush it for use or use quills whole. This is best paired with oranges, unlike cassia which goes well with apples.
The big benefit of true cinnamon is it has significantly lower levels of coumarin, and can be consumed daily with no concern about liver issues. Surprisingly both cassia and true cinnamon contain manganese, iron and calcium which are all important for the body to function properly. True cinnamon you can take as capsules, and you can make those yourself like any other ground or powdered herb. True cinnamon has not been studied as much as cassia, but both species are believed to lower blood glucose. Possibly by allowing the stomach to retain food longer so the blood sugar spikes less after a meal. Again the studies for this are still lacking a volume to make a definitive call on if this is or is not the best thing for diabetes, but if you suffer from this it is a safe thing for you to try to see if it can help you. It seems a gram daily is the recommended dosage to help with blood sugar, and even possibly with cholesterol.
True cinnamon is, like cassia, great for the blood, and circulatory system. Rubbed on topically it is a warming oil and that helps draw blood to a location that needs some attention – like inflamed joints or muscles, and muscle spasms. True cinnamon is also a mild anti-coagulant and can help prevent clotting in platelets. Again like cassia, this is a great anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. It has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine for this purpose and to fight flu and colds. This is also a reason it was also used in food preservation, not to mask the taste of rotting meat as you were probably told in school that most spices were used for in Europe. Which, frankly, is silly. You can still smell it is rotten, and it will still make you sick even if you coated it in spices. People in history were just in a different time they weren’t dumb! True cinnamon can also help stimulate the brain, and help wake you up. A sprinkle in your morning tea or coffee is a great way to get your whole body going in the morning. And like cassia again, true cinnamon is great for digestion and easing any distress from holiday over indulgence.
Being from Texas, and so close to Mexico, my favorite way to have true cinnamon, or in Spanish canela since it looked similar to their cannons, is in hot chocolate. If you have never treated yourself to some Champurrado on a cold morning, you haven’t lived.
The traditional method is best here, but if you can’t get all the ingredients you can substitute as best you can just make sure you do get Celyon cinnamon. This recipe is originally listed here, but I have made a few notes below to help with substitutions.
Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate)
- 1/4 cup masa harina
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups whole milk (or milk substitute)
- 1 round Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped (Abuleita or Ibarra is great)
- 2 cones (about 2 oz) piloncillo chopped or grated
- 2 quills Ceylon cinnamon, whole or ground
- 1 whole star anise, optional
- a pinch of ground Ancho and Ceylon cinnamon quills for garnish
In a large pot, over medium high heat, mix the masa harina together with the water using a whisk, until it is thoroughly blended. If the water is already hot add a small amount of water to the masa harina before adding it to the hot liquid to avoid clumps. Add the rest of the ingredients, and whisk vigorously until chocolate and sugar are melted and blended and a froth forms. This is always served whipped and you can purchase a traditional whisk to do this, but you can also rotate the handle between your hands to get a good vigorous froth. Remove whole spices and ladle into mugs. Serve hot, with a pinch of Ancho and a cinnamon quill, and enjoy. This is always great with a Magdalenas for breakfast or for a snack.
Substitutions ProTip: For the masa harina, if you can’t find it you can grind corn meal in your food processor or blender until it is fine and mix with a small amount of water to form a paste when adding to hot liquid. You can also grind corn tortillas in a food processor adding a small amount of water to again make a paste in a pinch as well. For the milk you want to use “full fat” so coconut cream is better here than just regular milk substitutes. For the Mexican Hot Chocolate, if you don’t have a Hispanic section in your market 3 oz of semi-sweet chocolate will do but you need to add an additional quill of cinnamon or a teaspoon ground, and a half teaspoon of almond extract. Also if you don’t have that Hispanic section you won’t have the piloncillo, use 2 oz dark brown sugar. Lastly, if you can not find Ancho powder, or Anchos to grind into powder, Chipotle or any mild smoky dried, roasted pepper will do.
You can make a cinnamon tea, which is great after dinner, or just on a cold morning.
True (Ceylon) Cinnamon Tea
- 2-3 quills of Ceylon cinnamon
- 2-3 slices of Oranges
- 8 oz Boiling water
Steep in a covered teacup for about 5-10 minutes and enjoy! Honey is a great addition to this, you can also grind the cinnamon quills and mix it with the honey to create a paste and then use about a teaspoon or two for your tea. For menstrual cramps and as an anti-inflammatory this tea is fantastic, and you can always add additional herbs to make it even stronger pain fighting tea (like ginger, or turmeric). It is also, a great morning wake up tea, and will help prevent distress or gas after over indulgence. It be teamed up with fennel, or peppermint to name a few, to help with any nausea from pain or medications. This recipe is also great for diabetics for a daily cinnamon dose.
True (Ceylon) Cinnamon Massage Oil
- 1 oz Carrier oil
- 20-30 drops of True cinnamon oil (make sure to get oil made from the bark, like here, not from other parts of the plant!)
- Additional oils if needed, cloves, pine, orange, tangerine, and nutmeg oils all go well with this one
Mix well and store in a dark bottle, massage into stiff or painful areas for a warming anti-inflammatory effect. Again, warming oil, don’t put it on that sensitive skin!
Since we brought up spiced wine earlier as a way to take cassia, I would like share a recipe I got from a small Mexican restaurant near where I live. These guy’s are like sneaky crack dealers! The first fix of this tea is free, that is how they get you hooked! I had to get the recipe and they were nice enough to provide it 🙂 Tequila is optional here, but really why would you leave that out?
Polvo’s Cinnamon Tea
- 5 cups Boiling water
- 5 quills Ceylon cinnamon
- 5 rings of Pineapple
- a shot or two of tequila, maybe more depending on the evening!
Mix this in a teapot or punch bowl and serve warm, this is amazing after a big meal on a cold night, or whenever. This is for a teapot but if you want to make a large punch bowl estimate about 2-3 cups of water per person you would like to serve. You could also throw in some cloves as well.
One last item both true cinnamon and cassia have a mild laxative effect. If you are suffering from constipation from pain medications or otherwise this is a great tea to take on its own to get things moving, or with chemical laxatives to ease the cramping that those can cause.
There are tons of applications for cinnamon, and these are just a few for these two species. Do your own research and trials and see what works for you. Remember everyone is different, and you should always ask a doctor if you are taking anything that can affect your blood if you are going to be doing it long term, so make sure you discuss this with your medical professionals. Check WebMD for interactions, remember cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon are listed separately on there. And if you are in doubt in the slightest, ask a professional!