Cinnamon or cassia
How to tell the difference
The featured image shows cassia, not cinnamon
Cinnamon is one of the world’s cardinal spices, appearing across multiple cuisines and finding sweet and savoury applications. But if you cook in the West (particularly the English-speaking West), the odds are that you are not cooking with cinnamon, but rather with cassia.
Does it matter? Apart from the matter that being duped is really annoying, there are differences in flavour profiles that might matter too. The real stuff has a more citrus flavour and is less sweet and less bitter. It is lower in coumarin, a chemical of concern to European food regulators. Here in Australia, it’s been a long time since I saw anything that looked like cinnamon.
Both spices come from a tree of the Laurel (Bay) family with the genus Cinnamomum. The trees come in 4 species with culinary relevance. Only one of these, C. zeylanicum, otherwise known as C. verum, (verum is Latin for true) is actually cinnamon. Its relative and frequent substitute is C.cassia. C.verum is grown mostly in Sri Lanka (where it is native), whereas C.cassia hails from SE Asia (mostly southern China, Vietnam and Indonesia).
Cinnamon has been traded for thousands of years (Egypt was trading for it ~2000 BC — it was highly prized and a suitable gift for monarchs). However, about 100 years ago importing it into the USA became prohibitively expensive, and a switch was made to its less-expensive nearest relative cassia. Labelling laws in the USA (and elsewhere) don’t require the distinction to be made, so cassia has been cinnamon ever since.
It is possible to distinguish the difference just by looking at the species. Cinnamon is light-coloured, soft and cigar-like in its structure. Cassia is hard, dark and hollowed out. This difference comes from harvesting. The true cinnamon trees are heavily pruned, and then when they send up new shoots these are harvested and the outer bark removed leaving the tender inner sections that are dried. With cassia, the bark of mature small trees is harvested, giving a thicker and rougher product. Cinnamon comes as quills, cassia looks more like bark.
Packet ground ‘cinnamon’? — at your own risk.
This is what cinnamon should look like: