The pungently sweet spice we know as cinnamon is ground from the dried bark of trees in the evergreen family of the genus Cinnamomum. There are several varieties of cinnamon-producing trees with characteristics that differ according to the area to which they are native. Some types resemble thick-stemmed bushes, standing 6 to 10 feet tall, while others grow as large as 5 feet in girth and 50 feet in height.
What is cinnamon?
At harvest, cinnamon-tree bark is slit and stripped off both trunk and branches. It then curls up tightly, making long, slender "quills," or cinnamon sticks. Because cinnamon retains its aroma and flavor longer in the bark form, it is almost always left in sticks until it reaches its final destination.
Most cinnamon used in the United States is derived from trees grown in southeast Asia, and is sometimes referred to as cassia. This term is used to distinguish the southeast Asian types of cinnamon from Ceylon and other cinnamons. "Cassia" is the species name of the Cinnamomum species that grows in China.
The southeast Asian species produce the product most Americans recognize as cinnamon - a reddish-brown powder with a strong characteristic aroma and flavor. Quite different are the Sri Lankan (Ceylon) and Ceylon-type cinnamons. These are characteristically tan-colored, with flavor and aroma so much milder than that of cassia that the average person in this country would consider them weak or poor cinnamon. Most Sri Lankan cinnamon brought into the United States is re-exported to Mexico, where it is preferred for certain confections. For labeling, however, any bark from the Cinnamomum family, whether cassia or Ceylon-type, may be called "cinnamon."
Unquestionably, the cinnamon best suited to American bakers comes from the cassia type of cinnamon trees, for which there are three main producing areas - Indonesia, China and Vietnam.
Major cinnamon types Indonesian cinnamons come from the mountainous areas inland from the port of Padang on the island of Sumatra. Coming from a higher altitude, Korintje cinnamon characteristically has a slightly more intense color and flavor than the lighter-colored Vera; Korintje is deep reddish brown and has a sharp cinnamon flavor.
Chinese cinnamons - Tunghing and Sikiang (Kwangsi) - come from the southeastern part of China, within a few hundred miles of the Vietnamese border. Although they have characteristics similar to those of Saigon cinnamon, they are lower in essential oil and therefore not as strongly flavored. They tend to be more of a true brown than reddish-brown. The Sikiang variety is a little lower in oil than Tunghing, but comparable to Indonesian grades in oil level.
Saigon cinnamon has traditionally been considered the finest quality cinnamon because on average its oil content runs higher than that of other types. Saigon (and Chinese) cinnamons have a sweeter flavor than Indonesian types. Saigon cinnamon is reddish-brown in color, but tends to be darker than Indonesian.
A number of other cinnamons (both Ceylon-types and cassias) are generally low in volatile oils, and therefore weak in flavor. They are usually available at a lower price than Indonesian, Chinese and Saigon cinnamons, and are therefore used as a base for "fortified" cinnamons and for more economical cinnamon blends. These varieties include light-colored Seychelles cinnamon; slightly darker Madagascar cinnamon; Indian cinnamons, which vary in volatile oil content and although darker, do not have as true a flavor as the Madagascar and Seychelles types; lightish-brown Taiwan cinnamon, which has a mild, neutral flavor; and light-colored, mild-flavored Ceylon cinnamon.
The best cinnamon Cinnamon barks are graded largely on their essential-oil content - the principal component of which is cinnamic aldehyde. The higher the oil content, the more intense the aroma and flavor.
When purchasing cinnamon, the commercial baker must consider his specific needs. For certain purposes, it may be desirable to give a baked product high cinnamon coloring, and yet a relatively mild flavoring. In this case, the buyer should look for a rich-colored cinnamon (cassia) with a moderate oil content, or perhaps a cinnamon blend, in which two or more grades are mixed to give the desired performance.
There is no simple, foolproof test for determining the origin and quality of cinnamon. However, the American Spice Trade Association's Official Analytical Methods, which are used by many independent laboratories, puts spice-buying on a clear, scientific basis. This series of analyses - one is specifically designed to determine the amount of cinnamic aldehyde in cinnamon, another to determine total volatiles - is available by contacting the organization. With the help of standardized procedures, buyers and suppliers have a common basis for specifications and bids.
Your spice supplier will be happy to advise you on the best cinnamon or cinnamons for your purposes. Understand, however, that there are no "bargains" as such. The higher grades - the ones with more intense flavor - will always cost more per pound, and blends containing a higher percentage of these premium grades will also command a greater price. At the same time, the top grades can often prove to be the most economical in the long run, since their greater strength may allow smaller quantities to be used.
Cinnamon should be stored in a cool, dry place. Excessive heat volatilizes and dissipates its aromatic essential oils, and high humidity tends to cause caking. Label and date containers when they arrive, so that older stock is used first. Store containers off the floor and away from outside walls to minimize dampness. Tightly close all spice containers after each use, because prolonged air exposure causes loss of flavor and aroma. Under good storage conditions, the aroma and flavor qualities for which cinnamon is prized should be retained long enough to meet any normal requirements of commercial baking.
Spice Rack is based on the American Spice Trade Association's What You Should Know informational series on spices. For more information, call 201-568-2163, or visit www.astaspice.org.
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