The aisles of a well-stocked grocer or bulk-food shop are lined with scores of spices, some familiar and some exotic. Learning and mastering can take a while, and it doesn't help when even the familiar ones such as cinnamon sometimes throw you a curve. For example, one brand might be labeled "cinnamon powder," while another is termed "ground cinnamon." In truth, both labels describe the identical spice.
In each case, your ground cinnamon begins life as the fragrant inner bark of a tree. The trees are part of an extended family of closely related species, found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia, China, Vietnam and other tropical or semi-tropical countries. When dried, the bark forms long, woody curled-up "quills," or cinnamon sticks, which can be steeped in liquids to add their characteristic flavor. Grinding the dried sticks to powder makes the spice more versatile and easier to add to your recipes.
Although "ground" and "powdered" cinnamon mean the same, you might still notice differences between brands. Some are ruddier and stronger-tasting, while others are golden and more fragrant. That's because not all cinnamon is really cinnamon. The pale, fragrant variety is the "true" or Ceylon cinnamon, while the darker variety is known properly known as cassia. Most ground cinnamon sold in the U.S. is cassia, though true cinnamon is favored in Europe and Latin America. Ceylon cinnamon is available online and through gourmet grocers, so it's not impractical to keep both on hand and experiment with them in your favorite dishes.