making eggnog adding the spices

Cinnamon spice science

Spices are fascinating elements of cooking and baking. Their smells can transport you bake to certain points in time (speculaaskruiden for me = winter). The way in which you use them affects how strong they are and how they come out. There’s actually a lot of pretty special molecules in these spices that make them pop so much, spice chemistry!

Cinnamon is one of those spices with a rich history and wide variety of applications. Some use it in sweet (what about cinnamon rolls or apple pie?), others make savoury dishes with it (Moroccan tajines), and others use it in that typical Christmas drink: eggnog. So what makes cinnamon special? What molecules are essential, what is cinnamon really made of? And what’s the difference between a stick and the powder?

Where does cinnamon come from?

Cinnamon is the bark of a plant with the Latin name Cinnamomum. There are more than 200 different species, all slightly different in production and taste. Some examples are Chinese or cassia cinnamon or the ‘true’ (verum in latin) cinnamon. In a lot of places though, kind of depends on where you live, you can just buy ‘cinnamon’, there’s no distinction between species or types.

If you buy cinnamon sticks you’re literally buying cinnamon bark. This bark is harvested from the cinnamon tree and dried, making it become pretty tough and hard.

Composition of cinnamon

Most of the cinnamon consists of carbohydrates and a bunch of dietary fiber, with just a few sugars. Cinnamon bark also contains a few percent of fats and proteins and a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Since we eat only so little of cinnamon at a time though, you will not get a lot of any of these with a slight sprinkle of cinnamon.

The cinnamon flavour

Only a very small percentage of the cinnamon sticks actually has the characteristic cinnamon flavour, these are the essential oils. The molecule responsible for most of the cinnamon flavour is cinnamaldehyde (C9H8O). This one molecules makes up more than half of the essential oil in cinnamon. Another common molecule contributing to flavour is coumarin.

Due to natural variation and the various species of cinnamon the concentration of these two components can vary a lot. Some cinnamon sticks might contain quite a lot of coumarin whereas others barely contain any.

Antimicrobial properties

It has been found that cinnamaldehyde can actually be used as an antimicrobial substance in some cases. It prevents the growth of a variety of micro organisms. For that reason you will find plenty research looking into the use of cinnamon (oil) for shelf life preservation.

Using cinnamon (sticks)

As we discussed at the start, cinnamon is added to apple pies, cinnamon rolls, plenty of curries and other flavourful savory dishes. Cinnamon provides a lot of flavour thanks to those essential oils we just discussed. When using cinnamon sticks to achieve this flavour you often can’t just throw them in the final dish, you can’t eat them. Instead, you soak the cinnamon sticks in the liquid or food you’d like to transfer the flavour to.

When doing this you should be aware that oils tend to dissolve a lot better in other fats, than in water. Therefore, cinnamon sticks are commonly fried in oil or soaked in (fatty) cream. This process does take time and can be sped up by increasing the temperature.

This process actually is very similar to extraction. Online people have discussed making cinnamon extracts, just like vanilla extracts. Since again the most important flavour molecules are oil soluble extracts are best made with alcohol instead of water. Extraction with water wouldn’t work well since the flavour molecules won’t dissolve.

How is powdered cinnamon made?

It isn’t always convenient or practical to use cinnamon sticks. If you’d like to add cinnamon to a dough for instance, there isn’t really a way to soak up the cinnamon into the dough. In that case, you’d use cinnamon powder.

Powdered cinnamon is not made by extracting the powder from the bark (as is the case for vanilla beans for instance). Instead, powdered cinnamon is made by simply milling the cinnamon. If you’ve ever tried to grind these types of hard spices (apart from cinnamon sticks anise stars for instance), you will have noticed a food processor can have trouble. These spices can stain the food processor because of their instability at higher temperatures and the subsequent release of oils!

Cinnamon sticks vs powder

Once cinnamon sticks are broken down into powders the powder will start losing the flavourful volatiles. It seems as if the essential oils in cinnamon we described above disappear pretty easily. So cinnamon powder will slowly lose its flavour (not to say that I don’t have cinnamon powder >1 year old…).

Another difference between the two is the fact that when using cinnamon sticks you discard the sticks and only use the extracted flavour. However, when using powder, you add the entire cinnamon with the milled bark. So your flavour perception will be different. Of course, powder has the great advantage that it can be mixed into a dough or the like a lot easier than a stick which requires steeping etc.

cinnamon rolls ready to bake
Cinnamon rolls with plenty of cinnamon rolled within the rolls.

Thickening power of cinnamon?

One of my readers pointed out to me that when adding cinnamon to coffee or tea it can result in a gel like substance at the bottom. It’s not something I had actually ever seen myself. But when googling the internet I found out there’s several people who experienced something similar! Apparently, if you add some cinnamon types to a hot drink or dish it can result in a slimy/gel-like substance. Unfortunately, no-one really did any proper research into why this happened. It could be due to the large fibrous molecules in the cinnamon powder, but I’m not completely sure.

Have a look at the resources at the end of this post for more great examples of ‘slimy’ cinnamon.


Read more on the phenomenon of gel like cinnamon in hot dishes:

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