Wednesday 17 April 2013

Cassia Bark and Cinnamon

I don't know anyone who can resist the warm, soothing fragrance of cinnamon, do you? This warm, aromatic spice is used in everything from mulled wine to fragrantly spiced curries, to enduring cinnamon buns and baking of all kinds of goodies.Cinnamon has been prized everywhere since the early Egyptians and its not surprising that its a staple in Middle Eastern cooking as well as in cusines from all over the world. Mexican cuisine prizes its 'cannella' and no Indian spice cupboard is complete without its distinctive curls and bark.

There are several varieties of cinnamon, but in this short piece I will be focusing on the two genus' that I use the most, cassia bark and 'true' cinnamon. 

Cassia Bark  

Latin Names: Cinnamomum Cassia (Chinese)/ Cinnamomum Burmannii (Indonesian)/ Cinnamomum Loureiroi (Vietnamese)

Indian Names: (Jungli/ Wild) Dalchini (dahl-chi-nee)

One of the most familiar spices in the Indian kitchen is cassia bark. I always thought that cassia was the outside bark of the cinnamon tree/ shrub, and to some extent I was right. But as I read and researched more about cinnamon, I found out that cassia is actually a genus of cinnamon, and commonly grown in China, and therefore also known as Chinese Cinnamon. It grows extensively in China and South East Asia, and is cheaper to cultivate the 'true' cinnamon. Chinese cinnamon is cheaper and exported widely around the world, and also comprises a large portion of the ground cinnamon market. There are three commonly used types of cassia, Chinese, Indonesian and Vietnamese (Saigon). Saigon cassia tends to be more expensive, though disruptions in production have meant that its Chinese cassia that is the most exported and consumed. India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) are also huge producers of cassia, with the state of Kerala in India, in particular, having some of the largest cassia/ cinnamon estates in Asia.

Cassia bark is widely used in Indian cooking, in particular, and my research suggests that the reason is that its cheaper to buy and use. However, taste testing also suggests that the flavour of cassia is milder and less intense than 'true' cinnamon, and this contributes to the flavour profiles of several Indian dishes in which cassia is widely used.

Cassia bark can be easily identified by its rough, tree bark like texture and tends to be extremely hard and difficult to powder. The flavour, as I said earlier, is milder and less intense to cinnamon, and youy have to rub your fingers on it to get a sense of the fragrance. The profile is warm and aromatic, similar to cinnamon, but the taste tends to be less overpowering, therefore it can be used in larger quantities to ground or 'true' cinnamon.

Cassia Bark - Flavour Profile

Cassia has an easily identifiable flavour profile. The usual words to describe it tend towards 'sweet' 'fragrant' 'warm' 'aromatic' and 'delicate'. It does have a pronounced spicy-warm flavour that complements the other spices that its normally used with, like cloves and cardamom. It tends to be used in several spice blends, particularly the traditional Indian garam masala, as well as Madras curry powder. Whole cassia bark, cardamom and cloves, along with black pepper and bay leaves are also, occasionally, called whole spice garam masala. You can substitute 'true cinnamon' for cassia bark, but be sure to use less of 'true' cinnamon, as it has a stronger flavour. Ground cinnamon also tends to be stronger than whole cinnamon or cassia, so again, caution in substitutions is recommended.

How To Use Cassia Bark 

Cassia Bark is used in a similar way to several of the other spices used in Indian cooking. Remember that cassia bark is a very hard spice, so it's next to impossible to manually powder it in a mortar and pestle, so I highly recommend using a spice grinder. You can also repurpose an old coffee grinder, but make sure you don't grind any coffee in it after you have used it for spice blends :) 

To use, I first measure cassia bark in inches or centimeters. To be honest, a little more or less doesn't really make a massive difference to a recipe, and its usually used to taste anyway. I then try and break up the cassia bark into smaller, more manageable pieces, after which I dry roast it to activate essential oils and give it a burst of flavour. To dry roast cassia, heat a heavy based pan to a medium high temperature, then throw in the cassia bark. Shake or stir the cassia bark in the pan vigorously, so it doesn't burn. It usually takes between 30 - 45 seconds, at which point the spice should smell fragrant. Turn out immediately into a bowl and let cool completely before using it in your spice blends. I rarely, if ever, powder my cassia bark separately, as I tend to use ground cinnamon, if necessary, but I do use it in pretty much 90% of my recipes and my spice blends.

I buy my cassia bark here in Edmonton, and I have a variety of sources. My favourite store is probably 'Kairali's, A Thousand Spices', as I like that they get their spices straight from Kerala. But cassia bark is also available in the Asian section of most Superstores and also in my dear gentleman's store at EZee Mart. It stores easily, and if you don't want to buy a large bag, my EZee Mart man will split it into smaller portions for you. You can also buy cassia bark online, I like Silk Road Spices from Calgary and Spice Sanctuary from Banff. 

Cassia Bark and Cinnamon

'True' Cinnamon

Latin Name: Cinnamomum Verum

Indian Name: Dalchini (used interchangeably with Cassia Bark)

'True' Cinnamon is the variety that you are most likely to see in regular Western supermarkets. Its usually sold in curly quills or ground. Ground cinnamon is used regularly in pretty much any or all of baking and cooking recipes that call for just cinnamon. The quills tend to be used whole, usually to flavour the recipe, and tends to be removed at the end. Mulled wine, for example, or Mexican Hot Chocolate tend to use the quills whole as flavoring. You can also grate or powder up these quills, as they are not as hard as cassia bark. 

'True' Cinnamon is mainly produced in Sri Lanka, also known as Ceylon and the southern states of India, though the majority of the crop produced is exported. It has a fascinating colonial history, and is considered a spice fit for kings. I just love that the South East Asians call it 'kayu manis' or sweet wood, which, essentially it is. 'True' Cinnamon is painstaking to produce, as the bark has to be first carefully stripped off, after which the inside of the tree is gently stripped into thin layers. These layers have to be processed quickly, at which point they curl into their characteristic curly quills. There are several grades of cinnamon, and are usually graded on colour, aroma and appearance. 

Along with its use in the culinary world, cinnamon is also used in the perfume industry, where its essential oils form the base of many perfumes. A lower grade of cinnamon is used in home fragrance and the candle industry. 

Even though 'True' Cinnamon is not traditionally used in Indian cuisine, there are many recipes that do call for it, particularly in more modern interpretations of Indian food. Its also traditionally used in Indian desserts and is a part of the spice cabinet. 

'True' Cinnamon - Flavour Profile 

Of course, the  major profile of 'True' Cinnamon is its sweet, intensely fragrant, warm, woody aroma. It is an instantly distinguishable spice and is used in pretty much all kinds of cooking and baking. Its a powerful spice and a little goes a long way. Its particularly good paired with chocolate, as the Mexicans do. 

You can buy cinnamon in any supermarket. However, its worth buying whole cinnamon from Asian groceries where they have a high turnover of spices, as the flavour does degrade once its been ground. Whole cinnamon will also degrade in flavour, but not as much as its a pretty stable spice otherwise. 

A few recipes from The Tiffin Box to use Cassia Bark and 'True' Cinnamon  

Pretty much all of my Indian recipes will have a version of either cassia bark or 'true' cinnamon in them. But just to pick some -
In my favourite recipes for cinnamon buns, here and here. 
In my classic Dal Bukhara
In the royal recipe for Taar Korma
In this terribly delicious Chicken Mughlai 
In my very popular Navratan Korma 

So, what is your favourite recipe that uses either cassia bark or 'true' cinnamon?


  1. This is such an informative post! I have always wondered (momentarily) the differences in cinnamon types when I stand in front of the spice display at the market and see 'Saigon cinnamon' next to 'ground cinnamon' ... I don't know that I have a favorite recipe that uses cinnamon because its so widespread in my baking ... Mexican Chocolate Cake, French Toast with Butter Sugar and Cinnamon, and Snickerdoodle Cookies come to mind!

  2. Hi Michelle..it was such a pleasure to meet you last weekend at the Food Bloggers of Canada Conference; I will be continuing to follow your blog and excited that you covered Cassia and Cinnamon this post! I was fortunate to travel to Vietnam last year and brought back some Vietnamese variety and the aroma is truly different from regular cinnamon: very pungent and sweet...truly worth the difference in price if you can find it. It is wonderful just sprinkled on lattes...mmmm....I use it sparingly to make it last!

  3. I have wondered about the difference as I have not often heard the word cassia, but have heard about Chinese or Vietnamese Cinnamon and was told they were each a milder cinnamon...enjoyed the flavour profile description and appreciate the attention to me on Twitter as it is a super busy time for me (Eat Alberta and Slow Food National Conference) and I may have missed this post - and that would have been a terrible shame. I so appreciate the research and information!

  4. Most "cinnamon" sold in the US and Canada is actually Chinese Cinnamon / Cassia, not True Cinammon. In Europe, Mexico and Oceania, it tends to be True Cinammon.

  5. Unknown is correct about American "cinnamon". Also, I have always found Ceylon cinnamon (true cinnamon) to be the milder of the 2, kind of soft and fruity. Interesting--makes me wonder if different noses smell different aspects of the 2 spices differently.

    1. I agree Laura Ceylon Cinnamon the best i have seen & tasted,all that not all cinnamon are equal and to know exactly, Ceylon Cinnamon also has more antioxidant than others.

  6. I see this web entry is a few years old and I'm not sure if the writer is still active, but there's a major flaw: that photo supposedly of true cinnamon is actually just another form of cassia. The photo of cassia bark at the top shows the the form in which Chinese cassia is typically found. The photo supposedly of true cinnamon on the bottom is the form in which Indonesian (Korintje) cassia and Vietnamese cassia (Saigon cinnamon) are normally found, quill of a curled single thick layer. This is what is typically found in American stores, but it is not "true" Ceylon cinnamon, which comes in quills of multiple thin layers. If you don't believe me, just do an image search on the web for "cassia and cinnamon" and you'll find many examples showing that your single layer quills are cassia. True cinnamon is actually much milder in flavor than any of the cassias, and in fact, much of the true cinnamon found in stores is already stale and just tastes like sawdust, but you can get it from some online sources fresh enough that it still has cinnamon flavor to it.

  7. terence de monte cristo25 December 2016 at 00:49

    Matt, I have to disagree with you. True cinnamon will take over a dish much more than cassia bark. I cannot bear the way Westerners over-use it in cakes and buns, so that they become sickly with the overpowering aroma. Go to any Christmas market in Germany to see what I mean! Cassia, on the other hand, is a lovely sturdy spice that does not overpower but enhance, with its savoury undertones.

  8. @terence de monte christo
    I see you hate Germans. But hey here´s news for you - you don´t have to like what Germans do and/or eat. I don´t like the way you behave either.
    We Germans like it that way, it´s our tradition and we find it delicious. Stay away from our Christmas markets if you don´t like it and cook and bake at home with your beloved cassia.
    I think Cassia has a very weak and not very nice aroma which I do not like at all. I think Cassia is the poor men´s cinnamon, dead cheap and not nice at all.


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