Cinnamon is the brown bark of the cinnamon tree, which when dried, rolls into a tubular form known as a quill. Cinnamon is available in either its whole quill form (cinnamon sticks) or as ground powder.
While there are approximately one hundred varieties. Ceylon cinnamon is also referred to as "true cinnamon", while the Chinese variety is known as "cassia". While both are relatively similar in characteristics and both feature a fragrant, sweet and warm taste, the flavor of the Ceylon variety is more refined and subtle. Ceylon cinnamon is more rare in North America than the cassia, the less expensive variety, which is the most popular in the United States.
Cinnamon is one of the oldest spices known. It was mentioned in the Bible and was used in ancient Egypt not only as a beverage flavoring and medicine, but also as an embalming agent. It was so highly treasured that it was considered more precious than gold. Around this time, cinnamon also received much attention in China, which is reflected in its mention in one of the earliest books on Chinese botanical medicine, dated around 2,700 B.C.
Cinnamon's popularity continued throughout history. It became one of the most relied upon spices in Medieval Europe. Due to its demand, cinnamon became one of the first commodities traded regularly between the Near East and Europe. Ceylon cinnamon is produced in Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Brazil and the Caribbean, while cassia is mainly produced in China, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Cinnamon is available in either stick or powder form. While the sticks can be stored for longer, the ground powder has a stronger flavor. If possible, smell the cinnamon to make sure that it has a sweet smell, a characteristic reflecting that it is fresh.
Oftentimes, both Ceylon cinnamon and Chinese cinnamon (cassia) are labeled as cinnamon. If you want to find the sweeter, more refined tasting Ceylon variety, you may need to shop in either a local spice store or ethnic market since this variety is generally less available. Just like with other dried spices, try to select organically grown cinnamon since this will give you more assurance that it has not been irradiated (among other potential adverse effects, irradiating cinnamon may lead to a significant decrease in its vitamin C and carotenoid content.)
Cinnamon should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place. Ground cinnamon will keep for about six months, while cinnamon sticks will stay fresh for about one year stored this way. Alternatively, you can extend their shelf life by storing them in the refrigerator. To check to see if it is still fresh, smell the cinnamon. If it does not smell sweet, it is no longer fresh and should be discarded.
How do you use cinnamon? I use in in making cinnamon toast, and in lots of cookies, cakes, cinnamon rolls and other Christmas baking.