Know Your Spices: Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a popular, versatile spice used across the globe in both whole (stick) and ground forms. It can be subtle in a curry alongside other herbs and spices, or a star ingredient in dishes like cinnamon toast or rice pudding.

Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon on a white plate

Lori Rice

As a child, I would wake up sleepily to the warm scent of cinnamon wafting from the oven. Whether it was cinnamon rolls, hot cross buns, or cinnamon raisin bread, that sweet, warming spice always found its way into our cooking during the cold winters. 

To this day, cinnamon is one of my favorite ingredients - the delicious flavor fragrant and spicy. Cinnamon can be featured more delicately, as a subtle note in a curry alongside other herbs and spices, or as a star ingredient in a dish like cinnamon toast, rice pudding, or horchata.

Mounds of cinnamon and cinnamon sticks on a white plate

Lori Rice

Where Does Cinnamon Come From?

Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of multiple tree species. Harvesters scrape off the outer layers to reveal the inner, wetter bark. The bark dries for several hours, naturally curling into quills (or sticks) in the process. Finally, it is cut into small pieces and sold. 

Ceylon vs cassia cinnamon

Cinnamon Varieties

Interestingly, there are a few different species of cinnamon:

  • Cinnamomum verum, or Ceylon cinnamon: Often called "true" cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and possesses a slightly sweet aroma with a medium brown coloring. 
  • Cinnamomum cassia, known as Cassia cinnamon: Spicier, bitter, and reddish-brown, Cassia cinnamon has a sturdier texture, making it more difficult to break apart than the Ceylon variety. 

Of the two types, Ceylon cinnamon is more challenging to find. 

Although there are differences between the varieties, these variations are more subtle than they might appear; a Washington Post taste test demonstrated that none of the testers could correctly distinguish Ceylon cinnamon. Therefore, you can feel free to use whatever kind of cinnamon you can find for most recipes. 

Cinnamon Sticks vs. Ground Cinnamon

Another question you may be wondering is when and where to use whole cinnamon sticks versus the ground powder. Cinnamon sticks are great for creating a delicious, fragrant aroma in your dish - as with mulled wine, cider, or spiced pulao. Any recipe where you simmer or slow-cook the dish for an extended timeframe is well suited for whole cinnamon.

When cooking with cinnamon sticks, gently smash them with the back of a knife for more flavor when simmering in a liquid. Before serving, you can remove the stick if desired, or leave it in to add visual appeal. If you don't want to fish out the sticks before serving, you can wrap them in cheesecloth while simmering. 

Ground cinnamon is suitable when you're looking to create a more potent flavor, such as with cinnamon sugar toast or cinnamon rolls. Additionally, it works well for mixing into marinades or spice seasonings. 

Three types of cinnamon on a white plate

Lori Rice

How to Substitute Ground Cinnamon for Cinnamon Sticks, or Another Spice Altogether

If you are unable to find whole cinnamon, you can substitute ground cinnamon. Use 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon for 1 cinnamon stick. 

When using ground cinnamon, try not to overdo it; too much cinnamon can impart a bitter flavor and gritty texture to the dish. Instead, start with a small amount, taste, and adjust as needed.  

If you're out of cinnamon entirely: While there isn't a perfect substitute for this spice, nutmeg, cloves, or allspice provide similar earthy, warming flavors and aromas. 

Where to Buy

Given how popular the spice is, you can easily find whole and ground cinnamon varieties at most grocery stores. But if you're looking for a specific type of cinnamon, you can source it from specialty stores such as Curio Spice, Burlap and Barrel, or Kalustyan's

How to Store

Keep cinnamon (ground and whole) in a cool, dry spot in an airtight container. If you have a spice grinder, you can purchase whole cinnamon sticks and grinding them into a powder when needed to keep the spice fresher. 

Ground cinnamon can last up to 3 years, though the peak flavor is best within a year. Whole cinnamon should last you 3-4 years. 

A pan of Homemade Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls are being frosted.
Marta Rivera

Recipes That Use Cinnamon


There are so many different ways you can use cinnamon in your cooking; take a look below for some suggestions!