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The Best Cinnamon
Labels touting origin imply there’s more to this standby spice than there once was. How much does source influence flavor?
Published Nov. 1, 2016. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 18: Soup for Dinner
What You Need To Know
Few spices feel as familiar as ground cinnamon: We swirl it into oatmeal; sprinkle it on top of lattes; bake it into pies, cakes, and cookies; and even add it to savory dishes. But when it comes to shopping for cinnamon, the choices sound exotic. Instead of picking up simple “ground cinnamon,” you can choose from among bottles specifying “Vietnamese” or even “Saigon” on the label. Such cinnamons also command a higher price—up to about $4.00 per ounce, compared with as little as $0.90 per ounce for those with generic labeling. Does origin really matter, or is it just a clever marketing tool?
To find out, we rounded up eight cinnamons, most nationally available in supermarkets and one purchased online from the spice purveyor Penzeys. Half the products were Vietnamese cinnamon. The other half didn’t specify origin on their labels, but we confirmed with manufacturers that they all hailed from Indonesia, the source for most generic cinnamon sold in this country. Tasters sampled the products stirred into chilled rice pudding, baked into cinnamon rolls, and sprinkled and baked on cinnamon-sugar pita chips.
It took one test—the rice pudding tasting—to determine that cinnamons are noticeably different, mainly when it comes to heat. Some were markedly spicy (a few even bordered on too intense), while the others had more-tempered heat that allowed hints of sweetness and clove to come through. When we compared comments to products, we discovered that origin does matter: The Vietnamese cinnamons all fell on the spicier end of the spectrum, while the Indonesian cinnamons were milder. And there were tasters who championed each style.
We looked deeper into cinnamon production and learned that “cinnamon” is actually an umbrella term for several different species of evergreen trees in the genus Cinnamomum. Moreover, the species grown in Vietnam is different from the species grown in Indonesia. Vietnamese growers cultivate Cinnamomum loureiroi, which is naturally higher in the volatile oils that provide heat and carry cinnamon’s trademark flavors than the Cinnamomum burmannii grown in Indonesia. A less common third type, Cinnamomum verum, is grown in Sri Lanka. Another species (Cinnamomum cassia) grown in China is mainly imported to the United States in the form of oils for flavoring in food manufacturing.
The age of the bark at harvesting also affects the amount of volatile oils. Harvesting entails stripping the exterior bark from the tree and then scraping its interior into strips, or quills, that are then sun-dried and ground. Older trees contain the most oils. Indonesian cinnamon typically comes from the bark of trees that are less than 10...
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