Cinnamon warms us in the colder months. Your apple pies, gingersnaps, hot toddies, pumpkin spice lattes, sweet potatoes, and raisin breads all yearn for this delicious tree bark.
But, have you ever tried true cinnamon?
Ceylon cinnamon is known botanically as Cinnamomum verum, and formally, Cinnamomum zeylanicum. It is often called Mexican cinnamon or “true” cinnamon. (Verum means true in Latin.) This variety doesn’t grow in Mexico, but it is widely used there. It actually grows in Sri Lanka, which was formerly known as Ceylon. Ground Ceylon cinnamon has a subtly complex flavor and delicately floral, citrus aroma. It is quite mild compared to its assertive competitor, Cinnamomum cassia, which grows in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
Cassia cinnamon grows like a tree, but Ceylon cinnamon grows as a large bush. When ready for harvest, the plant is cut a foot from the ground, allowing the cinnamon bush to grow back. The plant’s leaves look similar to bay leaves, which is not surprising once you know it belongs to the laurel family. Ceylon cinnamon’s papery thin bark is carefully peeled and layered with other pieces of bark. The layered bark curls into quills as it dries, much like you might see with birch bark. You can see the difference in this picture.
The highest quality of Ceylon cinnamon is called ALBA. It has a light sandy color, free of any dark spots, and strictly curled bark. There must be no other woody bits or twig pieces stuffed into the quill. There are other grades of this cinnamon, such as C5, M5, but these are not a gauge of flavor, rather the thinness and purity of the quill. We carry only the highest grade of Ceylon cinnamon, either ALBA or C5 depending on availability.
The strength of cinnamon’s flavor is found in its volatile oil. This varies greatly in the cinnamomum genus, from 0.5% to as high as 6.5%, with Ceylon cinnamon being on the lower end of the spectrum. Since this delicate cinnamon is low in oil, it is best to buy it in smaller amounts more frequently so that it still delivers its wonderful flavor.
We grind our cinnamon in house, in small amounts that we anticipate selling within two weeks. 25 years ago, we’d grind 100 pounds of our strongest Saigon cassia cinnamon to about 3 pounds of the Ceylon cinnamon. Back then the stronger, spicier cinnamon was a customer favorite across the board. Today we grind around 25 pounds of Ceylon cinnamon a week to 200 pounds of Saigon cinnamon a week. More people are enjoying the variations of cinnamon in their cooking.
A good deal of credit for this could be given to Rick Bayless, who educates people about the flavors found in Mexican cooking. Mexican cinnamon, or, “Canela,” is a key ingredient in Mexican cuisine. If you’re familiar with Mexican cuisine, Ceylon cinnamon might remind you of a refreshing horchata, a Mexican hot chocolate, or the aroma of a panaderia. You will also find Ceylon cinnamon in Moroccan stews and tagines, and Indian curries.
The subtle nature of this cinnamon makes it ideal for both savory cooking where this milder cinnamon won’t overpower savory meals, desserts and baked goods. A Ceylon cinnamon quill is an excellent addition to a pot of poaching pears. The gentle flavor complements the other ingredients, without dominating them. Apple desserts are especially good with this cinnamon, like this Canela Bourbon Cobbler.
Tom Erd has over 40 years experience in the spice trade. He’s a walking encyclopedia of seasoned knowledge, both historical and biological. When he’s not working in the shop or delivering spice seminars, you might find him shopping for an old Portuguese galleon to import more spices with.