Cinnamon is a fragrant spice with a warm, sweet flavour, popularly used in baked goods, curries and confectionary. It is commonly available as small rolls of bark or ground into a powder, but can also be distilled into an essential oil, which is used in food, liqueur, perfume and even drugs. Cinnamon has been prized for its taste and smell for thousands of years and was considered a rare and precious luxury throughout the ancient world. It was used to embalm mummies in ancient Egypt and is mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient in holy anointing oil.
Where does cinnamon come from?
Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree, an evergreen tree of the Laurel family, native to Sri Lanka. Cinnamon trees can grow to a maximum of 50 feet, but are usually cultivated as small, leafy bushes of no more than 10ft. They have attractive pink-tinged leaves and clusters of star-shaped flowers in the spring, and dark green leaves with cinnamon-scented purple fruits later in the year. Stems are harvested from the plant in its second year, and the inner bark is extracted and left to dry in long strips, where it curls into a rolled-up shape known as a quill. Once dried, the quills are cut into cinnamon sticks.
The Cinnamomum verum produces what is known as ‘true cinnamon’ or ‘Ceylon cinnamon,’ after the old name for its native country of Sri Lanka. But there are other, related species of tree that also produce fragrant bark commonly sold as cinnamon. Today, most commercially available cinnamon is actually ‘Chinese cinnamon’ or ‘cassia’, harvested from the Cinnamomum cassia tree. The two are slightly different in appearance; Cassia is reddish brown with a hard, woody texture, while true cinnamon is light brown and crumbly. True cinnamon is considered to be subtler and more aromatic, while cassia is stronger, spicier and retains its flavour better during cooking.
The history of cinnamon
Cinnamon is one of the world’s oldest and most popular spices and has found its way into dishes in almost every country. It is used to flavour curry on the Indian subcontinent, savoury chicken and lamb dishes in the Middle East, and chocolate and yams in Mexico. In the West it is popular in baked goods like cinnamon rolls and cookies, or with apples and pears in hearty pies, crumbles and cobblers. It’s warm, comforting flavour means it is often associated with dishes enjoyed in the colder months, like pumpkin pie, spiced lattes and mulled wine, but it can be used in a wide variety of recipes, from soups and stews to breakfast cereals and alcoholic drinks.
Cooking with cinnamon
When cooking with cinnamon, the recipe will usually call for either ground cinnamon or cinnamon sticks. Cinnamon sticks are the curled quills of dried bark as harvested from the tree, while ground cinnamon is simply the same bark ground into a powder. Cinnamon sticks typically give a milder flavour and are added to liquid recipes with slow cooking times, to allow the spice to infuse. The stick is removed and discarded after cooking. Ground cinnamon is stirred into dry mixtures, recipes that cook more quickly, or those that require a stronger flavour.
It is fairly straightforward substituting ground cinnamon for cinnamon sticks, but be careful not to overpower the dish. Try using ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon per stick, then tasting to see if it needs any more. Substituting sticks for powder is trickier. If it’s a quick recipe, the stick may not have time to infuse, and you may need to use two or three sticks to extract the same flavour. If your recipe involves a dry mixture, cinnamon sticks will not be practical in their current form, but you should be able to grind them into a powder yourself using a spice grinder or a grater.
Using cinnamon around the house
As well as adding flavour to food, cinnamon has a delicious scent that can be used to make your house smell of freshly-baked cookies or cinnamon toast every day, a particularly popular choice during the festive season. You can make your own natural scent diffuser using ¼ cup almond oil and 20 - 25 drops cinnamon essential oil. Place in a glass container with a narrow opening and add some reed diffusers. Or to make a natural cleaning solution, combine 1½ cups vinegar, 1½ cups water and 30 drops cinnamon essential oil in a reusable spray bottle.
Using cinnamon in the garden
There are also a surprising number of uses for cinnamon in the garden. It can be dabbed onto fresh plant cuttings with a damp towel to stimulate root growth and can also be used as an antifungal agent to prevent damping off disease and slime mould. Cinnamon is also good for repelling ants. Simply find where the ants are coming from - often a hole in between paving slabs or bricks - and sprinkle it with cinnamon.
Cinnamon spice: benefits
There may also be health benefits to eating cinnamon. It is an anti-inflammatory and contains antioxidants that protect your cells from damage and can help to prevent disease. It also has anti-microbial properties, meaning that it could be effective at fighting infections caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses.
Cinnamon is thought to be particularly good for people with type 2 diabetes. It increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin, the hormone responsible for transporting sugar from the bloodstream to the cells, where it is converted into energy. This means that the insulin is able to move sugar around more efficiently, lowering blood sugar and helping to maintain a healthy metabolism. There have been several human studies into the anti-diabetic effects of cinnamon, and results suggest that a dose of between 0.5 - 2 teaspoons a day can lower fasting blood sugar levels by 10–29%
There is also some evidence to suggest that cinnamon can help prevent heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases and even cancer. It has been shown to lower blood pressure in animal studies, and can lower LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol and increase HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol, all of which suggests that cinnamon could be good for maintaining a healthy heart. It slows the build-up of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s in the brain and may also inhibit growth of cancerous cells and prevent blood vessels from growing within tumours. Most of these experiments are still in early stages, however, and more studies are needed before we can say for sure.
As always, if you are unsure about anything you should consult a medical professional, but if you do decide to increase your intake of cinnamon, you should stick to true cinnamon and avoid cassia, or Chinese cinnamon. Cassia contains higher concentrations of a substance called courmarin, which has been known to cause liver disease if consumed in large quantities. True cinnamon contains only a trace amount of courmarin, making it a healthier option.
Cinnamon spice: properties
Cinnamonis very low in Saturated Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium, and is a good source of several important nutrients. Just one tablespoon of ground cinnamon contains around 16% of your recommended daily intake of dietary fibre and 68% of your recommended daily intake of manganese. It is also a good source of Vitamin K, Calcium and Iron.
It is also well known for its antibacterial properties and may be useful as a natural preservative. Scientists have found that relatively small amounts of cinnamon can significantly reduce the growth of harmful bacteria, which they believe is due to an active ingredient known as cinnamaldehye. This could prove particularly helpful for use in food and cosmetics, where synthetic preservatives such as methylparabens have been known to cause allergies.
Cinnamon is also thought to aid digestion and has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicinefor centuries, to soothe upset stomachs and as a cure for gas and bloating. To make your own soothing Ayurvedic tea, simply steep one cinnamon stick and a green tea bag in a cup of boiling water for five minutes, add a teaspoon of raw honey and a squeeze of lemon.
Recipe ideas with cinnamon
There are so many different ways that cinnamon can be used in cooking, but in our opinion, you can’t beat the classics. Who can resist the smell of warm cinnamon buns, fresh from the oven? Follow our simple and delicious recipe for a soft and fragrant baked treat, finished with a drizzle of lemon icing.
Apple crisp and cinnamon cupcakes
As the days grow colder, these spiced apple crisp and cinnamon cupcakes are perfect for cosy evenings spent by the fire. Made from a cinnamon-spiced sponge with pieces of walnut and juicy apple, they are topped with a lemon-flavoured cream cheese icing and a chewy apple crisp. Apple and cinnamon is a classic flavour combination, and the warmly-spiced sweetness of these little cakes is the taste of autumn in every bite.
Cinnamon is also great for flavouring confectionery, like these festive cinnamon stars - the perfect treat for your winter celebrations. Made from egg whites and sugar, these pretty star-shaped candies have a delicious meringue flavour warmed by spicy cinnamon.
You can even use cinnamon to add spice to your favourite cocktail. If you like a fruity cocktail, you’ll love the spiced-apple flavour of The Orchard, made with apple cider, bourbon, pear liqueur and a touch of cinnamon syrup. Or if you prefer your cocktails decadently sweet why not try a bee’s kiss, made from dark rum, cinnamon syrup, cream, and honey. For these recipes and more, check out our list of 8 Must-Try Cinnamon Cocktails.
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