Cinnamon Toast-Off

Putting our spice theory to the test.

The holiday baking season is on, and many of you, like me, are probably preparing for your pfeffernüssen and fruitcakes by poking through your cabinets to gauge what's on the spice rack. It's spice shopping time again, time again to ponder: How much of a difference in the quality of your cookies will your spices make? Should you spend more money on good spices? The quality of spices degrades with time, because their volatile oils evaporate quickly, so I generally purchase small batches of bulk spices from food co-ops and Indian markets. This week, I set out to determine whether I was doing the right thing by testing one kind of spice: cinnamon. Without going into detail, almost all of the "cinnamon" on the U.S. market is cassia, the bark of a tree closely related to cinnamon; cassia produces a more pungent, cheaper, and more readily available spice. To avoid the whole cinnamon vs. cassia debate, I tested ground cassia from four sources: Trader Joe's ($1.69 for a 1.5-ounce bottle); Saigon cinnamon from World Spice shop in Pike Place Market ($1.50 per ounce for bulk); McCormick cinnamon ($2.69 for a 1-ounce plastic jar at Safeway), and cinnamon from the Madison Market bulk bins ($6.79 per pound, or 42 cents per ounce). Smelling the bottles straight up, it was easy to distinguish among the varieties. The Safeway cinnamon had a one-note, soft aroma, and was much more coarsely ground than any of the others. Trader Joe's was three times more pungent, with overtones of fresh sawdust and a spicy hit-the-back-of-the-nose-and-make-you-sneeze quality. Madison Market's cinnamon smelled pure and sharp, with a pronounced spiciness that nevertheless didn't overwhelm. The perfume of Saigon cinnamon, currently the rage in gourmet circles, was the most complex, with notes of myrrh and asafoetida; it was the one I most wanted to dab behind my ears. But you don't pass your plate of rugelach along with a jar of the spice you used to flavor it. So I conducted two blind tests. Test one was the cinnamon toast challenge, in which I roped in anyone who passed by the toaster in Seattle Weekly's official test kitchens (i.e., the break room) to taste four slices of cinnamon toast. I collected broad disparity in the opinions: One taster correctly identified the McCormick's cinnamon, saying, "This is the cinnamon toast of my childhood"; by far, she preferred the Vietnamese variety. However, another food-writer type came to the opposite conclusion, preferring McCormick's delicate flavor because he hates cassia and only uses true cinnamon at home. The Vietnamese cinnamon, he said, left too bitter an aftertaste. Others, like me, found the Trader Joe's too sharp, and waffled between the Saigon and Madison Market cinnamons. There's no hiding the taste of cinnamon in cinnamon toast, so test two was to make my mother's cinnamon rolls. I baked four identical batches, switching out only the cinnamon at the center of the roll's swirl, and invited several friends over to make sure I didn't eat all 24 myself. Again, the McCormick's cinnamon seemed to disappear behind the flavors of the dough and frosting. The Trader Joe's version was fine, if a bit prickly in the throat, and once again, the Saigon and Madison Market cinnamon came out on top. I'd be happy with either, but one friend summed it up when she finally decided on the latter: "It tastes cleaner," she said. The test reaffirmed my faith in the bulk spice jar. Not only that, the best spice turned out to be the cheapest. Compared to the McCormick, even the heady Saigon cinnamon was a deal, ideal for chai or curries, or for sprinkling in the corners of one's bedroom before a romantic night. One thing was clear: The mass-market spices were no bargain. Why pay extra for an inferior product? jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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