Spice support: cinnamon and cassia

Cassia sticks

Cinnamon is one of the most recognized and widely used spices in the world, flavoring everything from drinks to meats to breads and desserts. You might be surprised to learn that much of what you think is cinnamon is in fact a different spice. In the US, nearly all of the spice jars labeled as cinnamon actually contain cassia, which has a similar taste but is less expensive. 

As you can see from cassia’s Latin name, Cinnamomum cassia, it is is classified in the cinnamon family but differs from ‘true cinnamon’, Cinnamomum zeylanicum. (Some experts consider Cinnamomum verum to be ‘true cinnamon’ as well.) Both cassia and cinnamon come from the bark of tropical evergreen trees related to bay laurel. China is the ancestral home of cassia, and The Book of Spices notes it was cassia that first traveled to the West on what became known as “the cinnamon route”. 

The differences between cinnamon and cassia are subtle and are mainly a matter of preference. While cassia is not as fragrant as cinnamon, some people prefer cassia’s stronger flavor, which has a slightly bitter undertone. Saigon or Vietnamese cassia contains more oil and is more pungent than that grown in Indonesia, China, or India. Cinnamon’s flavor is considered warmer but sweeter than cassia’s often sharp taste.

Cassia bark is thicker than cinnamon bark (the photo above is of cassia), and the latter has a flakier appearance. Most true cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, where, according to The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs, generations of “cinnamon peelers” pass down the skill of peeling the delicate bark and deftly rolling it into quills. 

Color differences also distinguish cassia and cinnamon. Cassia bark is darker than cinnamon bark, and ground cassia has a reddish-brown hue, while ground cinnamon is a pale tan. Cassia is harder than cinnamon and is difficult to grind at home, but cinnamon can be easily ground using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. The quills of both spices are often used whole in poaching liquids.

Some countries have made it illegal to label cassia as “cinnamon”, but not the United States. Most of what is sold as cinnamon in the US is actually cassia. Most reputable spice merchants will offer additional information so you can tell which product you are buying. True cinnamon is frequently called ‘Ceylon cinnamon’. Another clue is the country of origin – if it comes from Sri Lanka, it is probably true cinnamon. 

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