Cinnamon and Cassia
Nearly everyone can recognise the soothing and refreshing aroma of cinnamon sticks.But it can be quite confusing — what we normally buy as cinnamon may not be true cinnamon but the bark of the cassia tree. Similar in flavour, but a lot stronger, cassia is predominately sold under the cinnamon label. The flavour is stronger than cinnamon, and in many parts of the world it is preferred because of this.
The spices collectively known as cinnamon (cinnamon, cassia and others) are derived from the fragrant bark of a group of small evergreen trees called Cinnamomum. Cinnamon has been used as a culinary and medicinal spice for thousands of years.
The two major types of cinnamon used in food preparation are Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and is also known as “true cinnamon.” This is NOT the predominant spice typically sold as cinnamon. What is commonly found at your grocer is a closely related and less expensive variety of cinnamon called Cassia cinnamon. Cassia is native to Burma and also grown in China and Vietnam. Cassia is slightly darker in color compared to Ceylon, and has a stronger, more pungent flavor.
While both Cassia and Ceylon are derived from the inner bark of Cinnamomum trees, Ceylon cinnamon is preferred by some for its sweeter, more delicate and complex flavor. Others prefer Cassia for its headier flavours.
Often articles will indicate that cinnamon and cassia are from different trees. This is not technically correct. There are several varieties of cinnamon trees, some produce better cassia (the outer bark of the tree), others produce better cinnamon (the inner bark of the tree).
It can be difficult to tell which you are buying, but if purchasing it in the stick form, you will see that cinnamon is more tightly rolled and the cassia “cinnamon” is a more open roll. Cinnamon rolls into tight qulils as it dries, and has an aroma of a tropical jungle. It is important to know which you are buying because of the different flavour profiles.
Cinnamon and Cassia are used in the West for desserts, in either its “stick” form or powdered form. Cinnamon is a wonderful spice and medicine with a pungent, sweet and astringent taste.
In India, it is added to many rice dishes and savoury dishes for its warm sweet aroma. It also forms an important ingredient of Garam Masala and of Masala Chai. It is said to regulate kapha in the lungs, and relieve coughs and colds. It aids digestion and the assimilation of digested food. It is strengthening to the heart and kidneys.
A thick, dark brown bark of a type of cassia is used in Balinese cooking too. It is far less subtle in flavour and far cheaper.
Ground or Stick Form?
Don’t substitute ground cinnamon when Cinnamon sticks or bark is called for, unless absolutely necessary. You may like to use an infusion of powder, properly strained, to substitute for the stick form if it is impossible for you to obtain sticks. You will need a lot less of the powdered form to produce the same flavours.
The only exception is when a recipe calls for ground cassia bark – the toughness of the bark makes it difficult to grind at home. Either create and infusion of the stick and use that, or purchase small quantities of ground cassia or cinnamon. The softer cinnamon bark is easy to grind.
Cinnamon also makes a great addition to any herbal or spice tea.
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