You may be carefully following your great-grandmother’s apple pie recipe, but there’s a chance she’d say it doesn’t taste quite right, and for good reason: you’re probably using the wrong cinnamon.
In the 1950s, most of the cinnamon Americans consumed was the Saigon variety from Vietnam. Saigon cinnamon – the peeled and ground inner bark of an evergreen tree native to mainland Southeast Asia – has a rich and slightly spicy flavor thanks to high levels of essential oils and a flavonoid called cinnemaldehyde. When the U.S. government imposed a trade embargo on Vietnam beginning in 1964, Saigon cinnamon became almost impossible to import, and spice sellers were forced to find another way to fill American cupboards.
Importers found a cheap substitute in Indonesia – a variety called Korintje. It’s a botanical cousin to Saigon cinnamon, but it’s much more bitter and doesn’t have the same depth of flavor. Unground Saigon cinnamon bark looks like a flaky, dark-hued mulch. The rigid, pale sticks (or “quills”) common in an autumn potpourri are Korintje.
Despite the end of the Vietnam trade embargo in 1994, most store-brand cinnamon is a far cry from the real stuff.
Commercially available ground cinnamon – almost always the Indonesian Korintje variety – is often mixed with fillers. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Spices Research used a process called DNA barcoding to test market samples. They found that 70% contained powdered beechnut husk, ground hazelnut or almond shell dust, dyed and aromatized using cinnamaldehyde and marketed as cinnamon.
There may be hope for your family recipes though: Robert Orth, who owns Calicutts Spice Co. in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, says shoppers are becoming more and more interested in Saigon cinnamon.
“In the past few years, Saigon cinnamon has become really trendy and en vogue,” he says. “People are starting to return to those flavors our grandparents were using in their kitchens.”
A third cinnamon variety is also gaining popularity in U.S. markets: Ceylon cinnamon, which grows almost exclusively in Sri Lanka.
“Ceylon is the inner bark of the Cinamomum Zeylanicum tree,” Orth says. “Most of the crop goes to Europe and Mexico. We haven’t developed a taste for it in America until recently. I do carry it in my shop, and many times I get people who’ve been cooking their entire lives and this is the first time they smell the freshly-ground bark of the cinnamon tree. It has a much mellower taste – a lot sweeter. It’s one of those spices that doesn’t necessarily pair well with a lot of flavors. It has subtle nuances to it, so you want it to be the star of the dish.”
Helen Brohier, a Sri Lanka-based spice seller, says Ceylon cinnamon may be less popular in the U.S. because of its higher price point – up to 10 times more expensive than either the Indonesian or Vietnamese varieties.
Historically, Ceylon was one of the first traded and most popular spices in the world, considered a gift fit for ancient kings. Today, Ceylon is used extensively in Sri Lankan cuisine, and is commonly used for medicinal purposes. It contains large amounts of antioxidants and can be used as an anti-inflammatory, and in animal studies, it’s been shown to reduce blood pressure.
Orth says a baker’s best choice is Saigon cinnamon, because the high essential oil content mixes well in batters.
“Anywhere you want that sharp cinnamon flavor – like cinnamon on steroids – use Saigon,” he says. “It compliments apples, pumpkin, squash – you name it.”
If you’re springing for the Ceylon, though, let that flavor take center stage.
“Mix a little into your coffee or oatmeal, but don’t bring in a lot of other flavors,” Orth says. “I like to eat it on plain vanilla ice cream. Whatever you use it on, it changes the whole dynamic.”
While commercial brands like McCormick & Company do market Saigon and Ceylon cinnamon in their gourmet lines, Orth and Brohier agree that the best way to be sure you’re getting the “real thing” is to find a local spice purveyor who knows the origin of their product.
This year at Thanksgiving, get your hands on some Saigon cinnamon for that apple pie recipe. You’ll be telling the truth when you say it’s just like the one grandma used to make. And maybe adding Ceylon to your spice cabinet won’t make you feel like ancient royalty, but you’ll certainly be eating like a king.
This story was originally published in October 2017.