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Ingredient Guide

What is cinnamon and how do I use it?

07 April 2021 Written by Tilda Kitchen

Discover the ancient spice that adds it’s unmistakable aroma to any dish

What is cinnamon?

Cinnamon is a brown spice with a delicately fragrant aroma. A cosy and comforting spice, just a pinch will intensify any dish with its distinctive taste and aroma.

Cinnamon is separated into two main categories: cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon. Ever-so subtle Ceylon (sometimes known as “true cinnamon”) primarily hails from Sri Lanka and is a staple of many Asian savoury dishes, while the more potent Cassia, native to China, is the variety most commonly found in sweet drinks, snacks and puddings.

Where does cinnamon come from?

Cinnamon is sourced from the inner bark of several tree species from the Cinnamomum family. The tree bark is beaten with a hammer to loosen the juicy, fragrant inner seam from the dry and woody outer. It is then peeled off in long strips, which are stacked in tight layers that curl up on drying. 

These quills are then packed tightly with a filling of loose bark trimmings, and when completely dry, are chopped into short sticks.

What does cinnamon taste like?

Cinnamon’s distinctly sweet yet smokey flavour comes from the aromatic oil that makes up to 1% of its composition. Ceylon cinnamon’s flavour and aroma are particularly subtle and delicate, almost floral, while Chinese cassia has a strong, woody and bitter flavour.

Fresh vs dried cinnamon: what’s the difference?

Ground cinnamon is cinnamon bark that has been ground to a powder; cinnamon sticks consist of the same bark rolled up into quills, so the first big difference is form. 

The second is how to add the two variants to your dish. While ground cinnamon is sprinkled on top or into dishes, cinnamon sticks are usually added to a liquid whole so that it can infuse into that liquid. In both cases, the results will be similar but cinnamon sticks generally offer a subtler flavour when compared to ground cinnamon.

What cuisine can cinnamon be used in?

Cinnamon features in dishes from all around the world. As well as sweet Scandinavian pastries and Turkish baklava, the spice adds warmth and depth to savoury Vietnamese pho and the mighty Moroccan tagine.

Use this standout aromatic to elevate chicken, lamb and vegetables, spice up the homemade pickles and add a dash of luxury to puddings. Combine with sugar to flavour breakfast cereals or bake with apples for a comforting pie or crumble, drizzled with cream. 

Cinnamon has been used to enrich spiced wine since the Middle Ages and is still popular in Indian flavoured teas and for bringing a festive infusion to eggnog.

How to use cinnamon

Ground cinnamon doesn’t need any preparation, although you can boil it up in the liquid for a total infusion when poaching. Popping a quill straight into the cooking water or sauce will break down the coarse layers of the spice and unlock the flavour and aroma. Ceylon quills can also be ground easily with a decent coffee grinder or simply crushed to size.

Where to buy cinnamon

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon can be found in the spice aisle of many shops and supermarkets. It might also pop up with the seasonal goods in the run-up to Christmas thanks to its long standing history of use in seasonal meals and drinks. Otherwise, it is sometimes also found with the sugar, sprinkles and spreads in the baking section.

How to store cinnamon

Both ground cinnamon and cinnamon sticks can last for a long time when you store them correctly; however, cinnamon sticks will last longer. In general, ground spices have a much shorter shelf life compared to their whole counterparts. Ground cinnamon lasts for about six months under ideal conditions, whole cinnamon sticks can last for up to two years.

Keep your cinnamon in an airtight container in a dark place to preserve its freshness.

Can you freeze cinnamon?

Freezing is not recommended for dry spices such as cinnamon. If stored properly it can keep flavourful for many years, and so freezing shouldn’t be necessary.

When not to use cinnamon

This cosy spice adds a dusting of delight to sweet and savoury dishes, but cinnamon can be a bit of a hazard if mishandled. The key to success is to use sparingly and add to taste.

If, however, you find you’ve used too much cinnamon, we know a couple of quick fixes. For savoury dishes simply add water to dilute, extra vegetables to soak up the flavour or mask it with other spices, tomatoes, garlic or onion. Sweet dishes can be fixed by spooning out the excess spice, or balancing the flavour with custard or cream.

Complimentary herbs and spices to cinnamon

Cinnamon’s sweetly spicy flavour means it blends beautifully with star anise, cumin, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric.

Substitutions for cinnamon

You’ll find cinnamon in all sorts of dishes, which can make it pretty difficult to avoid. Whether you’re allergic to the spice, have run out or simply aren’t a fan of the flavour, consider swapping in nutmeg, cloves, or allspice.

How to grow cinnamon at home

Despite cinnamon being harvested in a very particular way, you can actually cultivate a cinnamon plant for your home. They thrive best in a warm and humid climate, so you may need to grow it on a sunny windowsill if you’re not blessed with tropical weather.

Cinnamon can be harvested two-to-three years after first planting. Just cut off individual branches, remove the outer bark to reveal the yellow-orange seam underneath and peel this cinnamon layer away in strips with a sharp knife. Once the pieces have fully dried and curled up, simply grind or store as sticks in a secure container.

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