Today we’re talking about roots and bark, which just happen to be the last two spices on your list of basic seasonings.
CINNAMON: If you’ve never encountered cinnamon you should call child services and have them dropkick your parents for negligence because it’s likely you’ve never eaten a dessert of any kind and that’s just not right. I don’t need to tell you what cinnamon is for, but let’s talk a little about what it is. Cinnamon is the young bark of a tree native to India and Burma, the ‘young’ part is important. A tree cannot live without its bark and a young tree doesn’t have much bark, this makes large harvests impossible, but cinnamon growers have an interesting trick to increase yields and shorten growing times. Have you ever seen a tree stump with lots of little shoots growing out of it? That’s called coppicing and it is what they do to cinnamon trees after two years of uninterrupted growth. The shoots grow faster than full branches, are more uniform, are a manageable size and, covered in fresh young bark. The outer bark is discarded and the branches are hit with a little hammer to loosen the inner bark, which will be dried and packaged. Because cinnamon is just the thin strip of inner bark you should be suspicious of thick cinnamon sticks as they are likely a different plant, or an unscrupulous attempt to water down the cinnamon by including some of the outer bark. There are four main varieties of cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and is considered to be of the highest quality and best flavor, I tend to agree. Indonesian cinnamon is most similar to the Ceylon variety, but comes packed with some lingering bitterness and astringency. Vietnamese cinnamon has a rather rocky history of cut-rate trading and very low quality exports, it is therefore hard to gauge the actually qualities of the spice. Chinese cinnamon is often called cassia, and has a harsher more fiery flavor. Cassia is the preferred cinnamon for Chinese dishes but would be far too harsh for other cuisines. I would suggest you buy Ceylon cinnamon, preferably in whole quills (sticks), the quills should be made up of many very thin layers. If you are using ground cinnamon you should add it towards the end of the cooking to keep it from turning bitter with extended heating.
GINGER: Ginger is a rhizome (like a root but different) that is native to Asia where it has been cultivated for, I don’t know, a while (a big while). Ginger production has since spread to East Africa and the Caribbean. In Western cuisine, ginger is used primarily for sweet applications. The East, however, use it for pretty much everything. Ginger is a difficult spice to keep around because recipes will call for it in a specific form. You wouldn’t want fresh ginger for cookies or powdered ginger for stir-fry. I would suggest keeping just the powdered ginger on hand and buying fresh ginger as needed. I’m going to say this again because I desperately want you to remember this: glass jars, only glass jars. I’m serious. Do you remember “Mommy Dearest”? Good. Because I will come to your house and beat you with your plastic spice jars. Also, I should mention there are two basic kinds of ginger, young and old. Young ginger has a very thin, pale skin. Older ginger has a thicker more bark-like skin. The young ginger is best for fresh applications, but for baking and brewing you should get the older stuff because the flavor is stronger, harsher, and less easily masked.