Living on the budget of a college student (or recent grad, which, heads up, can be a lot tighter) usually means buying the cheapest ingredients. Always. I am no stranger to the hunt: I often go to three grocery stores in one outing to get the best deal on everything. However, lately I’ve begun to wonder: are some things worth the splurge? After all, we live in a market economy; more money is supposed to equal better product…right? I decided to put that theory to the test in a series of (highly scientific, I can assure you!) ingredient comparisons.
Let’s start with one near and dear to my heart: cinnamon.
Anyone who bakes as often as I do has to deal with cinnamon often. I use it in just about everything, from cake, to cookies, to muffins, to brownies–I have yet to meet a baked good that doesn’t like cinnamon. I usually go with good old Trader Joe’s, which, at $1.99 is actually really reasonable for a spice and is the best deal I’ve found. It’s not special, but it definitely does the trick. I have heard a lot about Vietnamese cinnamon, though. My boss even orders it specially online for all her baking needs, and has assured me of its superiority. The other spice I have heard bandied about is Ceylon cinnamon (no, not the robots from Battlestar, nerd*, we’re talking about tropical Sri Lankan cinnamon groves). This is otherwise known as “true cinnamon,” and is therefore the most expensive of the bunch. Being a recent college graduate living in New York and not working on Wall Street, I have not allowed myself the indulgence of ordering spices to be delivered to my home. However. I am a dogged SKC journalist, and so I bit the bullet, for the good of the blog.
I compared the three versions using two of my favorite childhood comforty foods, where cinnamon takes the lead: Snickerdoodles and Cinnamon Toast. Here are my findings:
Trader Joe’s Basic Cinnamon.
Overall characteristics: This one smelled the most overtly “cinnamony.” It has a strong, pungent, bitter scent right off the bat, the kind that comes at you in a cloud. It is very dark, and the grain seems to be a bit bigger than its specialty counterparts.
Snickerdoodle: When I rolled the cookies in the cinnamon-sugar mix, the TJ’s cinnamon stained the dough a dark red, coating it in a thick layer of cinnamon. When baked, these cookies tasted, essentially, commercial. If I hadn’t tasted these alongside the specialty spices, I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed a difference. But once I did, it definitely tasted like this version was meant to chemically approximate the others–something about it tasted just a tad unnatural. Like a really good poser.
Cinnamon Toast: The TJ’s cinnamon yielded toast that was probably exactly how you remembered it from childhood. Not better, not worse–it tastes like the cinnamon in Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Which, don’t get me wrong, is delicious, but vaguely chemical.
Overall characteristics: This cinnamon has a very sweet, aromatic scent. Similar to the Trader Joe’s, but just a little bit fainter–you have to lean in just a bit closer and close your eyes a little longer to parse the smell. Although the scent still has a sharpness to it. The grain is finer, but it still has quite a dark color–darker than the TJ’s variety.
Snickerdoodle: The cookies were stained a little less immediately by this one. As you can see in the pictures, even though the cinnamon itself was darker, the grain must have been much finer or the cinnamon less adhesive, because the dough had less coverage overall. In terms of flavor, these were hands-down the best. Even in my very informal blind taste test (my boyfriend was the subject this time around), these were “clearly” the best of the three cookies. They had a sweet but not cloying taste, and the cinnamon, though less powerful on first bite, lingered much longer on the tongue.
Cinnamon Toast: This was your childhood cinnamon toast flavor, done really, really well. Slightly sweeter, more subtle, but still with that cinnamon flavor you’ve come to know and love. The clear winner.
Overall characteristics: This cinnamon had a noticeably fainter, more sweet smell; it had notes of citrus and while a little bitter on the tongue, not so much to the nose. It was also surprisingly light in color, and very fine in grain. I guess I assumed that “true cinnamon” would be the darkest, most pungent variety, but I was proven wrong.
Snickerdoodle: This cinnamon just barely coated the dough in my first batch, and when they came out they literally did not have any discernable cinnamon flavor to speak of. For my second batch, I upped the cinnamon factor significantly–so I needed more of it to get an equivalent flavor. The result? It still faded away into the background, leaving me simply with the taste of a sugar cookie.
Cinnamon Toast: The Ceylon cinnamon fared better in the toast experiment. My theory is that cooking it with the butter drew out some of its depth and subtlety of flavor, much like toasting spices in ghee before adding the rest of the ingredients to a curry. While this toast was really good, it just didn’t taste like the classic comfort food of yore. It was more akin to a “spice toast”–something exotic and unfamiliar–than it was to my mom’s cinnamon toast.
If you bake often with cinnamon, splurge for the Vietnamese. It’s good to have a big ol’ jar of TJ’s in the pantry as well, for large-batch items or something you care a little less about. But when you wanna bring out the big guns at a price that won’t completely break the bank, go for the Vietnamese Cinnamon. As far as I can tell, the Ceylon cinnamon isn’t really worth it. It’s not that much more expensive than Vietnamese, but you have to use more of it, and I actually don’t think it tastes as good. Although if I were making a ton of curries or tagines, and had this on hand, that’s probably when I’d break it out.
Sometimes it is worth a little extra money, and in this case, I think the few extra dollars make a noticeable difference. I will be buying this again, most likely.
*Did I just totally out myself as a Battlestar junkie?
Lily graduated in 2009 from Harvard University with a degree in English Literature. While in college, she bartended and cooked at the campus pub, and as a result has a difficult time eating chicken wings. She is currently the Assistant Managing Editor for Small Kitchen College.