A guide to the cinnamon spice. A sweet, warming and popular kitchen spice.
When we think of cinnamon, we usually conjure up images such as warm just-baked cinnamon biscuits, hot milk or cocoa sprinkled with cinnamon or a homemade apple pie containing sweet pieces of apple dusted with cinnamon and drizzled with homemade custard.
Cinnamon is a warming, sweet and exotic spice that we perhaps associate with cold wintry nights made more pleasant sat by a warm fire and an aroma of cinnamon in the air.
Cinnamon is also one of the main ingredients of mulled wine, a hot, spicy and fruity red wine warmer, most typically served at Christmas time or Bonfire Night.
What is cinnamon?
Cinnamon is an aromatic and warm spice that is available in two forms - the cinnamon stick or ground cinnamon powder.
The spice is actually obtained from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree. The bark is stripped from the tree and allowed to dry in the sun. Whilst drying, it rolls up into a quill and this is what we know as a cinnamon stick. Some of the quills are then ground down into a power and this is what we know as ground cinnamon.
There are two main types of cinnamon that are used in cooking today, although around one hundred different types of cinnamon tree actually exist in the world.
True cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon), which has a lighter, sweeter and more delicate flavour, is native to Sri Lanka where it is very popular in savoury dishes such as curries. It is also produced in India, the Caribbean and Brazil. We would use this sweet cinnamon in all types of cakes, biscuits, crumbles and breads.
The other main type of cinnamon is obtained from the cassia tree, which is found in Southeast Asia in countries such as Indonesia, Burma, China and Vietnam.
Cassia (Chinese cinnamon) is less expensive than the true cinnamon and perhaps spicier and more pungent. It is therefore preferred in exotic meat dishes, curries and other savoury foods.
The history of cinnamon
Cinnamon is one of the oldest spices around. It was mentioned in ancient Chinese writings of at least 2700 years old and also features several times in the Bible. The Egyptians imported cinnamon from China and used it not only as a medicine and food enhancer but also as an embalming agent. It was considered as precious as gold by many.
For the Romans cinnamon was just as sacred and important. It was burned at funerals and it is said that the Emperor Nero burnt a whole years supply at the funeral of his wife Poppaea.
Cinnamon was one of the first spices to be traded between Asia and Europe and the fact that Venetian merchants controlled the entire cinnamon trade in Europe fuelled other European explorers to travel afar in search of other ways of obtaining the precious spice.
After the Portuguese discovered Sri Lanka (Ceylon) at the end of the 15th century and took control of the cinnamon trade there, the Dutch removed them from power a century later, followed by the British in 1796. Since then the importance of the cinnamon trade declined, as cinnamon began to be produced and cultivated in other areas.
Therapeutic uses of cinnamon
Cinnamon is probably best well known medicinally for two main reasons. First of all cinnamon is highly antiseptic. This due to the high content of phenol and means that cinnamon can be used as a very effective mouthwash. Secondly, as it is a warming spice, it is often very useful as a cold or flu remedy.
Other therapeutic properties of cinnamon include the following:
- Cinnamon soothes stomach and digestive complaints such as flatulence, indigestion, heartburn and stomach cramps.
- It is an excellent medicine for colds, congestion, temperature and flu.
- Research has shown that cinnamon is effective against fungus and yeast infections.
- Cinnamon can be used to lower fever by promoting seating.
- Cinnamon oil can be used to treat chest infections and catarrh.
- It can help improve blood circulation around the body especially to the hands and feet.
- Cinnamon is an aid for weak digestion.
- It can help reduce pain caused by arthritis, rheumatism and muscle pain.
- Cinnamon is a calming herb and can reduce anxiety, depression and stress.
- It can help with sickness, nausea and vomiting.
- Cinnamon can stimulate menstrual bleeding and help regulate periods.
- It has been proved to lower high blood pressure.
- Chewing cinnamon sticks can relieve toothache and freshen the breath.
- Cinnamon is effective in the prevention of blood clots.
- Cinnamon has been proven to regulate blood sugar levels in people with type-2 diabetes and also to improve their response to insulin.
- Cinnamon is a good source of manganese, iron and calcium, which are all vital minerals required for a healthy body.
Buying and storing cinnamon
Ground cinnamon is probably the more popular variety of cinnamon in most European and North American countries.
Ground cinnamon is stronger in flavour when compared to the cinnamon stick. It can be bought in glass jars and will stay fresh for about 6 months.
Cinnamon sticks, on the other hand, have a more delicate flavour and are popular in Asian cuisines. They will keep fresh for about a year when stored correctly in an airtight glass container or jar.
Ideas for using cinnamon in the kitchen
Cinnamon is usually paired with apples and added to other sweet ingredients. However, if you are feeling adventurous, you could always try a few Middle Eastern or Asian recipes that include cinnamon in a great number of savoury dishes.
Below are several ideas to get you started:
- Add cinnamon to homemade biscuit and cake mixture.
- Sprinkle cinnamon onto apple pie or crumble.
- Use cinnamon in a mulled wine recipe.
- Flavour sweet bread dough with cinnamon.
- Make your own cinnamon ice cream or yoghurt.
- Add cinnamon to cereal.
- Sprinkle cinnamon onto hot chocolate or warm milk or add a cinnamon stick to stir.
- Add cinnamon to sweet rice, chopped fruit and nuts.
- Make a tea out of cinnamon sticks.
- Use cinnamon for hot beef curries and biriyanis.
- Add ground cinnamon to stewed apples, pears, prunes and apricots.
- Sprinkle cinnamon over fried bread dipped in beaten egg.
- Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon over freshly fried doughnuts.
- Add to rice pudding or other milk puddings and desserts.
- Use for marinades for lamb or beef.
A number of recipes for sweet and savoury dishes that contain cinnamon including lamb tagine, cinnamon ice cream and mulled wine.
Moroccan-Style Lamb Tagine
Many North African savoury dishes contain a number of sweet tasting spices within them to give them an exotic and exciting kick.
- 2 lb (905 g) leg of lamb
- 12 prunes soaked in warm water
- 1 chopped onion
- 4 tbsp of olive oil
- 2 tbsp of clear honey
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tsp of ground ginger
- ½ tsp of ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp of ground coriander
- ½ tsp of ground cumin
- a few saffron strands soaked in 1 tbsp of water
- salt and pepper
- Trim any excess fat from the lamb and cut into cubes.
- Heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a large frying pan or saucepan.
- Add the lamb pieces and the chopped onion and fry until the meat has browned and the onions are soft.
- Pour cold water into the pan so that the meat is completely covered.
- Add the remaining olive oil to the pan together with the cinnamon stick, ginger, ground cinnamon, coriander, cumin, saffron, salt and pepper. Stir well.
- Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to low.
- Cover the pan with the lid and simmer over a low heat for 2 hours.
- After this time, stir in the prunes and cook for a further 15 minutes.
- Stir the honey into the lamb mixture and serve hot with couscous.
Poached Pears in Red Wine
This is an excellent dessert for a dinner party or a special occasion and it is very easy to prepare, although you will need several hours to do so.
- 4 ripe pears
- 1 bottle of red wine
- 5 oz (140 g) of caster sugar
- 3 tbsp of clear honey
- juice of ½ a lemon
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2-inch piece of orange rind
- 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
- 1 clove
- 1 black peppercorn
- In a saucepan large enough to hold all four pears standing upright, place the red wine, sugar, honey, lemon juice, cinnamon sticks, orange rind, vanilla pod, clove and black peppercorn.
- Stir all the ingredients together whilst heating gently. Ensure that all of the sugar dissolves.
- Peel the pears whole but leave the stem intact.
- Cut a thin slice off the bottom of the pear so that it stands flat and upright.
- Place the pears into the saucepan with the wine and spices and simmer for about 25 minutes or until the pears are slightly tender but not too soft.
- Lift the pears out of the saucepan and transfer them to a large bowl.
- Cook the liquid further until it reduces by half.
- Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool.
- Strain the liquid through a sieve and pour over the pears.
- Cover the bowl with cling film and chill in the refrigerator for 4 hours or more.
- When you are ready to serve the dessert, place each pear in an individual serving dish. Pour a little of the red wine liquid over the pear and serve with whipped or clotted cream.
Cinnamon Ice Cream
You don't need an ice cream maker to prepare this delicious homemade ice cream. Serve with baked apples or on its own.
- ¾ pint (425 ml) of double cream
- ¾ pint (425 ml) of milk
- 4 oz (115 g) of caster sugar
- 6 egg yolks
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- Break the cinnamon sticks in pieces and place into a saucepan with the double cream and the milk.
- Mix the ingredients together and slowly bring to the boil, stirring frequently.
- Once boiling, remove the pan from the heat immediately and set aside for 30 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse.
- In a separate mixing bowl beat together the egg yolks and the sugar. Set aside.
- Bring the cream and milk back to the boil and then pour in the egg yolk mixture whilst stirring constantly.
- Reduce the heat and cook until the mixture thickens.
- Strain the mixture into a bowl or dish and leave to cool.
- Transfer into a freezer-proof container with a lid and place into the freezer until frozen.
This is an excellent hot beverage for a cold winter's night, especially if you are spending the evening outside for a festive occasion.
- 1 bottle of red wine
- 2 oz (55 g) of brown sugar
- 1 orange
- 6 -8 cloves
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp of nutmeg
- ¼ tsp of ginger
- Cut the orange in half and stud one half with the cloves. Reserve the other half of the orange until later.
- Place the red wine into a saucepan together with the rest of the ingredients including the orange half studded with cloves.
- Heat the wine and spices on a low heat for about 20 - 25 minutes. Do not allow the liquid to boil and stir frequently so that all of the sugar dissolves completely.
- Check the taste and add more sugar if necessary.
- Strain the mulled wine into individual mugs.
- Take the reserved orange half and cut into slices. Add a few orange slices to each mug of mulled wine and serve hot.