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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 Cook's Illustrated November/December 2009, 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...
Everything We Tested
In the rice pudding tasting, this Indonesian cinnamon struck “the perfect balance of sweet and spicy.” Its flavor dramatically mellowed when baked into cinnamon rolls and on pita chips.
With the highest percentage of volatile oils in the bunch, this Vietnamese cinnamon boasted a “bold” heat that didn’t overpower its “woodsier” flavors in rice pudding. But it lost heat in baked applications.
Mixed into rice pudding, this product fit the Indonesian cinnamon flavor profile: “balanced” and “not too spicy,” with a “woodsy,” “cedar-like” finish. In baked goods, its heat faded and it became fairly indistinguishable from any other cinnamon.
Tasters felt the burn from this Vietnamese cinnamon, which was “spicy” and “peppery” like “Red Hots candy” in rice pudding. In baked goods, it was indistinguishable from other cinnamons.
When swirled into rice pudding, this Indonesian cinnamon was pleasantly “perfume-y,” with heat that was “subtle” and gave way to a “sweet,” “fruity” aftertaste. Its heat and distinctive flavors faded in baked goods.
In rice pudding, most found this cinnamon “vibrant,” with “pleasant intensity,” though a few deemed it a little too intense. In baked goods, it was indistinguishable from other cinnamons.
This Vietnamese cinnamon was “intensely flavored,” with a strong “zing” of heat that reminded tasters of “cinnamon candy” in rice pudding. A few found this product “a little too hot,” but its heat faded almost entirely in baked goods, where it tasted similar to the rest.
Recommended with reservations
The only product with soybean oil added during processing, this cinnamon received low marks for its “sour,” “musty” aftertaste. However, these off-notes mostly disappeared when we baked with it.
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