That cinnamon powder that you buy in your supermarket has come a long way. Because, even though cinnamon is such a complex and rich product, consisting of hundreds of different molecules, it is completely natural. In fact, often nature is able to create more complex products than we humans are!
The powder started out as part of a tree, most likely growing in an Asian country such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India or Vietnam. Only after careful harvesting, stripping, drying and milling can it end up in your spice cabinet.
Cinnamon comes from a group of trees (a genus) with the latin name Cinnamomum. There are several hundred trees that belong to this group with just a few that make up the majority of the cinnamon available worldwide. The ‘original’ or ‘true’ cinnamon comes from a tree called Cinnamomum zeylanicum. This types originates from Sri Lanka and South India, with Sri Lanka still being by far the largest producer of it.
The other major type of cinnamon is the cassia cinnamon, which can be Cinnamomum cassia, or C. burmannii or C. tamala. Whether or not this type is called cinnamon or cassia, depends on the country you live in. Regulations and customs differ between Europe, America and Asia. Which one you regard as the ‘real’ cinnamon may depend on where you come from and which type of cinnamon you’re used to.
In (western) Europe and the US the cinnamon powder you’re buying is most likely the cassia variety. Only, when it is mentioned explicitly will you have the other variety, simply because it is the more expensive of the two. The ‘true’ variety is more subtle in flavor. Even though in literature ‘true’ cinnamon is often regarded as the higher quality of the two, that really depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to bake cinnamon rolls for instance, the cassia variety might just be more suitable for you since it’s stronger and more pungent in flavour.
Cinnamon starts out as a tree
If you look closely at a stick of cinnamon you will notice that it is curled up. It’s also incredibly hard to cut or break. If the structure reminds you of the bark of a tree you’re absolutely right. Cinnamon is the bark of the tree Cinnamomum. Even though we generally use the fruits from trees, cinnamon is a great exception to that rule since it’s really mostly the bark (and to some extent the leaf) that we use.
In the countries where cinnamon grows well the trees are left to grow for about 2 years, until the shoots of bark are suitable for harvest. Instead of having to harvest the whole tree, the bark is harvested by cutting of the shoots of the tree a few centimeters above ground. As a result, the tree will grow new shoots again, not requiring a new tree after every harvest (although trees do need to replaced once they’re getting too old). This practice is called coppicing and is common practice for plenty of other trees, if you’re from western Europe you might have seen it being done to willows.
Extracting the bark
Once the shoots of the cinnamon tree have been harvested it is time to remove the outer layer of bark from the shoot. This outer layer is not useful for the cinnamon and quite hardy. Once the outer layer has been removed the workers, because most of this work is still done by hand, carefully removed the inner bark layer. This is what will become your cinnamon stick!
Drying the bark into cinnamon sticks
These layers of inner bark then need to dry during which they harden out and become shelf stable. It’s during this drying process that the bark will curl up further and create those beautiful structure of cinnamon sticks. Some cinnamon sticks will be just one or two layers of curled up material, others might consist of several thin layers of bark. Which structure you get depends on how the peelers obtain and dry the bark and on the type of cinnamon. Generally, thinner layers of cinnamon from the ‘true’ cinnamon plant are better suited to deposit in several thin layers.
Once the cinnamon has been dried it is ready for sale and use in the form of cinnamon sticks!
Apart from the cinnamon sticks (and powder, more on that below) you may also find cinnamon chips in the store. Whereas the sticks come from the inner bark of the cinnamon plant, the chips aren’t peeled out of the stems. Instead, the chips are scraped of the older parts of the bark.
These chips are of a lower quality than the more delicate sticks. However, as is the case for choosing ‘real’ vs ‘cassia’ cinnamon, you don’t always need the highest quality of material. These chips still have a strong cinnamon flavour and thanks to their smaller size than the sticks, it is easier to use the desired quantity for your application.
Making cinnamon powder
Cinnamon sticks are great to use when you want to infuse flavour into a sauce or liquid. However, if you want to add that cinnamon flavour to a drier product such as a bread dough for cinnamon rolls, a stick isn’t very convenient. This is why a lot of the cinnamon (generally those sticks that don’t look as good) is made into cinnamon powder.
Powdered cinnamon is made by milling the cinnamon sticks. If you’ve ever tried to grind a cinnamon stick, you noticed that it’s not easy. Even a strong food processor can have trouble grinding a cinnamon stick. Even if your kitchen gear is strong enough a lot of heat is created along the process. This heat can destroy some of those flavourful oils in the cinnamon which is highly undesirable of course. That is why manufacturers have special mills, or might even use sub zero temperatures, to ensure as much flavour is kept within the powder while grinding it to a fine even size. Since the milling process can give manufacturers a real quality advantage over others, these processes are generally proprietary information.
Instead of making the bark into a powder, you can also make it into a cinnamon extract. This works very similar to making vanilla extracts!
Parthasarathy, V.A., Chempakam, B., Zachariah, T.J., Chemistry of spices, chapter 7, 2008, CABI, link
Ravindran P.N., Babu K.N., Shylaja, M., Cinnamon and cassia, Chapter 5, 2005, CRC Press, link
Willis, J.C., Agriculture in the tropics, 3rd edition, 1922, p. 82-83, link
Savory Spice Shop, thank you for explaining the differences in cinnamon, letting me smell different types of cinnamon and answering my cinnamon questions