One taster declared flatly, “cinnamon is cinnamon,” at the start of our marathon tasting of 10 different supermarket and mail-order brands. Not too long ago, that may have been the case. These days, it’s anything but a standardized commodity. Labels tout origin and claim distinctions such as “extra fancy” or “gourmet,” with prices to match. Processing has advanced to include cryogenic—yes, cryogenic—grinding to preserve more of the three key volatile oils responsible for cinnamon’s unmistakable aroma and hot, spicy flavor. Texture, moreover, can vary from uniformly fine to dusty or gritty. And the spice most of us Americans regard as cinnamon? Turns out it’s different from what the rest of the world calls cinnamon.
In virtually every other part of the globe, “cinnamon” means Ceylon cinnamon; in the United States, we are accustomed to the bolder, spicier flavor of a species known as cassia (also called bastard cinnamon). Both types derive from the bark of tropical evergreens in the Cinnamomum genus. Ceylon (Cinnamomum verum) is grown primarily in Sri Lanka, while cassia (Cinnamomum cassia, among others) may be grown in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam. American traders turned to importing cassia in the early 20th century following a rise in the price of the Ceylon spice, and it continues to be the main variety sold in supermarkets in this country.
Harvesting cinnamon entails stripping the exterior bark and then scraping its interior into strips, or quills, which are sun-dried and ground. Older trees contain the most oils and presumably yield the sharpest spice. “Saigon” cassia cinnamon from Vietnam is usually harvested from 20- to 25-year-old trees of a species containing the most volatile oil of any cinnamon on the market—often more than 3 percent of the total weight of the quill. Indonesian, or Korintji, cinnamon and Chinese cinnamon are harvested from trees younger than 10 years and contain less volatile oil. In cassia trees, the oldest bark, near the base of the trunk, is considered best; bark from the middle of the trunk is of moderate worth, and bark from the top and the branches is regarded as the lowest in quality.
But here’s the question: Once the spice is processed and packaged and sprinkled into your food, how much does all this stuff really matter?
To find out, we gathered 10 supermarket and mail-order brands. Some jars specifying “Saigon” were more than twice as expensive as containers simply labeled “cinnamon.” (In fact, one Saigon brand was a whopping eight times the cost of the cheapest spice in the lineup.) Our tasters then evaluated the spices mixed into applesauce and rice pudding and baked into cinnamon swirl cookies and cinnamon buns.
In every application, tasters declared that three factors mattered most: heat, complexity of flavor, and texture. Our top-ranked cinnamons had a spicy heat that built gradually, complex and balanced clove and floral flavors and aromas, and a fine texture that could not be detected when mixed into food. Lower-ranked cinnamons tasted like Red Hots candy and not much else—their heat hit hard and faded quickly. Some cinnamons were ground finely enough to incorporate smoothly, while others were slightly gritty in both applesauce and rice pudding. Our tasters described low-ranking cinnamons as having no complexity and a conspicuous (and therefore objectionable) texture. Baking—the chief reason most of us buy cinnamon—only brought out the differences: The taste of the lowest-ranked brand was barely discernible in cinnamon cookies, for example, while the two highest-ranked cinnamons retained their heat and complexity.
The volatile oils that give cinnamon its distinctive flavor are made up of several chemical compounds. The most dominant of the oils is cinnamaldehyde, which gives cinnamon its heat. Eugenol adds the flavor and aroma of cloves, while linalool adds a floral aroma. We surmised that a good ratio of all three oils is necessary to create strong, complex, well-balanced cinnamon flavor.
To test our theory, we sent cinnamon samples to a laboratory to measure their levels of volatile oils. The results were revealing: Our winning cinnamon, hailing from Vietnam, had the highest percentage of volatile oils, at nearly 7 percent. Another favorite, also from Vietnam, was the second highest, at 4.5 percent. Their high levels of volatile oils offered substantial flavor. McCormick Ground Cinnamon, our lowest-ranked contender, had just 2.5 percent volatile oils.
But then came a stealth champ from the supermarket, tied for second place with only 2.9 percent volatile oils. It possessed a complex flavor profile like its Vietnamese counterparts, but contained only slightly more volatile oils than lower-ranked cinnamons. How could this be?
It’s a Grind
We learned that much of the volatile oil in Cinnamomum bark can be lost during grinding, dissipating under the heat generated by whirring blades, and that eugenol and linalool (responsible for complex aromas) dissipate faster than cinnamaldehyde (source of spicy heat). Lower-ranked cinnamons possessed a higher percentage of cinnamaldehyde because most of the eugenol and linalool burned off during grinding. No wonder they tasted as one-dimensional as Red Hots candy—which, in fact, is flavored with 100 percent cinnamaldehyde.
To avoid this, some spice companies use a cold process called cryogenic grinding, which makes the most of all three types of volatile oils. Cryogenic grinding is a more costly process than ordinary grinding, and our supermarket favorite confirmed that its company does, in fact, use this method, preserving more of the potency of the eugenol and linalool and giving its cinnamon a complexity on a par with high-end cinnamons.
Eugenol has another interesting attribute: It’s a natural anesthetic. In a complex-tasting cinnamon, eugenol briefly acts this way on your palate by slightly numbing the ability to perceive the initial spicy heat of cinnamaldehyde, thus letting other flavors and aromas come through. It then wears off, allowing the heat to arrive as a pleasing aftertaste.
Finally, texture plays a part in flavor perception. Fine grinding exposes more surface area, leaving the spice susceptible to quicker loss of volatile oils as the cinnamon sits in your cupboard. Some manufacturers may choose a coarser grind to increase their cinnamon’s shelf life. Our supermarket favorite’s grinding method results in a fine texture that earned it high marks for blending seamlessly into food while still retaining complexity of flavor.
The Bottom Line
Although our tasters had their favorites, most brands of cinnamon rated reasonably well as long as they were fresh. Our favorite was a mail-order brand with limited store locations, and we think it's worthwhile if you want the best flavor for your baked goods—but freshness was the most important factor.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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