Used in ancient Egypt and mentioned in the Bible, cinnamon (Cinnamonum verum) is one of the oldest spices known. It was used for flavouring beverages, as medicine, and as an embalming agent. Cinnamon was considered more precious than gold and launched a number of explorers’ expeditions. This spice became one of the first commodities traded regularly between the Near East and Europe. It is mentioned in one of the earliest books on Chinese botanical medicine, dated around 2700 B.C. In medieval Europe, cinnamon, along with ginger, was a staple ingredient in many recipes where casseroles containing both meat and fruit were common. Mincemeat pie is a typical combination that is still made today.
In 1636, the Dutch captured Sri Lanka and established a system of cultivation that exists even today. Cinnamon is from a tropical evergreen tree of the laurel family growing up to 56 feet (7 m) high in its wild state. The deeply veined ovate shaped leaves are dark green on top and lighter green underneath. The bark is yellowish and smooth with aromatic bark and leaves. Small yellowish-white flowers with a disagreeable odour and dark purple berries are characteristic of cinnamon trees. They prefer to grow in hot, wet tropical climates at low altitudes.
Cultivated plantations grow trees as small bushes, no taller than 10 feet (3 m). The shoots are continually cropped almost to ground level, resulting in a low dense bush with thin leafy branches. The stems are continually cut back to produce new stems for bark. The outer bark, cork, and the pithy inner lining are scraped off and the remaining bark is left to dry completely, when it curls and rolls into ‘quills.’ Quills are strips of bark rolled one in another. Several are rolled together to produce a compact final product, which is then cut into uniform lengths and graded according to appearance, thickness, and aroma. The best varieties of cinnamon are pale and parchment like in appearance.
There are many different species of the tropical evergreen trees that produce this spice; between 50 and 250, depending on which botanist you choose to believe. The two main ones are Cinnamonum zeylanicum and Cinnamomun aromaticum. Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamonum zeylanicum) referred to as ‘true cinnamon’ and the Chinese Cinnamomun aromaticum or ‘cassia’ are the varieties most often consumed in North America. Relatively similar in characteristics, both feature a fragrant, sweet, warm taste although the flavour of Ceylon cinnamon is more refined and subtle and can be distinguished from cassia by its lighter colour and much finer powder. Most of the spice sold as cinnamon in Canada and the United States is actually cassia. In some cases, cassia is labeled ‘Indonesian cinnamon’ to differentiate it from the more expensive Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), which is the preferred form of the spice used in Mexico and Europe. Ceylon cinnamon is produced in Sri Lanka, Brazil, India, Madagascar, and the Caribbean, while cassia is mainly produced in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Cinnamon’s unique healing abilities come from three basic types of components in the essential oils found in its bark. These oils contain active components called cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol, plus a wide range of other volatile substances. These components have been well researched and found to help prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets; qualifies it as an anti-inflammatory food and an anti-microbial food; and cinnamon has been studied for its ability to help stop the growth of bacteria as well as fungi, including the commonly problematic yeast Candida. It may significantly help people with type 2 diabetes improve their ability to respond to insulin; the scent boosts brain function; and the calcium and fiber improve colon health and protect against heart disease. Valued in energy-based medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, cinnamon has been used for its warming qualities and to provide relief when faced with the onset of a cold or flu, especially when mixed in a tea with some fresh ginger.
In the kitchen, cinnamon is used as a condiment and flavouring ingredient in desserts, chocolate, spicy candies, and liqueurs. Middle Eastern countries use cinnamon in savory dishes of lamb and chicken. In North American, cinnamon and sugar are often used to flavour fruits and cereals, especially apples, and is a key ingredient in some varieties of pickles. It can be added to a variety of foods such as fruit dishes, breads, pancakes, muffins, pies, cookies, cakes, and much more. Add ground cinnamon to black beans to be used in burritos or nachos, curries, yoghurt, and warming drinks such as Hot Buttered Rum (see recipe below) or Hot Spiced Cider.
In the garden, cinnamon is used as an insect repellent and fungicide. Cinnamon is a great fungal remedy. To use as a fungicide, liberally sprinkle cinnamon on top of soil around plants. Cinnamon sprinkled in your cupboards and drawers will get rid of silverfish.
How To Buy
Cinnamon is available as cinnamon sticks (quill) or as a ground powder. The sticks can be stored longer, however the ground powder has a stronger flavour. The cinnamon available in North America is likely to be cassia. To buy the Ceylon variety, you will need to shop at a local spice store or ethnic market. Like other dried spices, select organically grown cinnamon since this will assure you that the spice has not been irradiated. (Among other potential adverse effects, irradiating cinnamon may lead to a significant decrease in its vitamin C and carotenoid content.)
How To Store
Cinnamon should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dry, dark place. Ground cinnamon will keep for about six months, while cinnamon sticks will stay fresh for about one year stored this way. Storing them in the refrigerator can extend shelf life. To see if it is still fresh, smell the cinnamon. If it does not smell sweet, it is no longer fresh and should be discarded. (Use it on your plants as a fungicide.)
Sprinkle cinnamon in with coffee grounds before brewing.
Cinnamon Coffee Spice Mix
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) sugar
- 1/4 tsp. (1 mL) cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. (1 mL) nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp. (1 mL) allspice
Combine ingredients and store in an airtight container. Use 1 – 2 tsp. (5 – 10 mL) per cup of coffee.
Cinnamon Toast Mix
Mix cinnamon with sugar and put in an empty spice jar with shaker for cinnamon toast. For a healthier variation, drizzle flax seed oil onto whole-wheat toast and sprinkle with cinnamon and honey.
Hot Buttered Rum
- 2 measures dark rum
- 2-1/2 measures water
- 1 teaspoon (5 mL) honey (or brown sugar)
- 1 pinch ground nutmeg
- 4 drops vanilla essence
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- 1 small knob of butter
Place the cinnamon stick, nutmeg, and vanilla essence in the heatproof cup. Heat the rum, water, and sugar in the saucepan until almost boiling. Remove from the heat and pour into the cup over the spices. Put the knob of butter on top and watch it melt into the mixture.