Both cinnamon and nutmeg are pantry staples in much of the world and are essential for a large number of savory and sweet preparations. Despite being familiar to most cooks and bakers, there are a lot of factors to consider when comparing them. In this SPICEography Showdown, we will take a look at how cinnamon and nutmeg stack up against each other.
How does cinnamon differ from nutmeg?
The first major difference is that the spice sold as cinnamon comes from the Cinnamomum verum tree or from the Cinnamomum cassia tree and nutmeg comes from the Myristica fragrans tree. All three of these plants are native to Southeast Asia but Ceylon cinnamon is from what is now Sri Lanka, cassia cinnamon is from Indonesia and nutmeg is from the Banda Islands.
Cinnamon and nutmeg also consist of different parts from their parent plants. Cinnamon is the bark of the tree while nutmeg is the seed of the nutmeg fruit, which looks like an apricot. The cinnamon bark is stripped from the tree and dried. The drying process causes it to curl up into quills or it can be ground to make cinnamon powder. Ceylon cinnamon sticks are thinner and more papery. Cassia sticks are thick and robust. The seed of the nutmeg fruit is dried in its shell and then ground or sold whole.
Flavor and aroma are two areas in which both of the spices sold as cinnamon differ significantly from each other and from nutmeg. Ceylon cinnamon is more astringent and complex than nutmeg and has a distinctive sweetness and woodsy, resinous quality that sets it apart from cassia. Cassia is the spiciest of the three and has a mild bitterness and floral sharpness to it. Nutmeg is nutty and sweet with earthy notes.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
The flavor profiles of Ceylon cinnamon and cassia are different from each other but neither is a great substitute for nutmeg. You will notice that many recipes include both cinnamon and nutmeg. This is an indication that while the flavor profiles are complementary, each spice brings something to dishes that the other cannot.
That said, the fact that they are both used in the same dishes means that you can often compensate for the absence of one with the other. Ceylon cinnamon has a more subdued note that is not as aggressively pungent as that of cassia and therefore might be a better fit for dishes that require nutmeg. Similarly, nutmeg might be more useful for replacing Ceylon cinnamon than as a cassia substitute.
When should you use cinnamon and when should you use nutmeg?
Use both forms of cinnamon in dishes where you want its distinctive warmth at the forefront. This includes both in sweet dishes and in protein-focused main dishes. It works well when you use it alongside other strong flavors. For example, you may see the combination of cinnamon and fenugreek in many Indian dishes and in some curry powders.
Use nutmeg in dishes that have subtle flavors. You might see it listed as an ingredient in cheese sauce recipes as well as in some soufflés. It is effective as a background note for both forms of cinnamon and for other spices. You will also see it used with allspice, clove and ginger. When used with those spices, it provides a strong background flavor that complements and accentuates.