Dig your fork into a slice of pumpkin pie or take a whiff of steamy mug of mulled wine and you’ll be greeted with the spicy sweet aroma and flavor of cloves. The spice is one of many such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice that can be used in both savory and sweet recipes to lend an abundance of warmth. Cloves are a cozy spice that bring a whole lot of character to a dish.
Cloves are also quite powerful in aroma and flavor, so you don’t need to add much to taste an impact. Here’s everything you need to know about this special spice.
Origin: Dried flower bud from the clove tree, found in hot, humid, tropical locations (like India, Indonesia, Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka).
Often used in: South Asian cuisine, spice blends, meat rubs and marinades, baked goods, and warm drinks (like mulled wine, chai, and cider)
Substitutes: Allspice or ground nutmeg and cinnamon (equal parts)
What Are Cloves?
Cloves are the dried flower buds of an evergreen tree in the myrtle plant family called the clove tree (Szyygiaum aromaticum). You’ll find this tree in hot, humid, tropical locations like India, Indonesia, Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka. The small, spike-topped buds of the tree are harvested before they flower and are then dried.
While the buds are green in color when harvested, they turn deep, dark brown when dried. The dried cloves are then packed and sold to be used in their whole form or ground into a powder.
Whole vs. Ground Cloves
Cloves are sold in both whole and ground form. Like all spices, cloves begin to lose their aromatics and flavor quickly once ground, so it’s recommended to grind whole cloves yourself with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
However, both ground and whole cloves have a place in the kitchen pantry. Whole cloves infuse their flavor into dishes but are usually removed before serving as they do not soften completely in the cooking process, while ground cloves are more easily incorporated into dishes.
What Do Cloves Taste Like?
Cloves are quite strong in aroma and flavor. They deliver a whole lot of warm spiciness, with also some bitterness and sweetness. Since they are so pungent, a little goes a long way in a dish. Their flavor is well-suited in both savory and sweet dishes, which is why you’ll see them called for in both types of recipes.
Where to Buy Cloves
You’ll find cloves in whole and ground form at any good spice shop, as well as any well-stocked spice aisle at your local major grocery store. Another place to look for cloves is Indian grocery stores because the spice is often used in the cuisine.
Cloves have their own unique characteristics but if you don’t have them on hand, you do have a few good options. The best substitute for cloves is allspice. This spice has a similar pungency, with a bit of sweet pepperiness. You can substitute an equal amount of whole allspice berries or ground allspice for whole or ground cloves. If using whole allspice berries, remember to remove them from the dish just as you would whole cloves because they also won’t soften enough to be edible.
Another good substitute for ground cloves is equal parts ground nutmeg and cinnamon. When combined, both lend a similar amount of spicy sweetness.
Cooking With Cloves
When cooking with whole cloves, add them to the dish during the cooking process, but be sure to remove them before eating. That’s because whole cloves remain woody and tough even after cooking. It’s common to stud a baked ham with whole cloves to infuse it with the spice while it bakes, as well as sprinkle whole cloves into mulled cider or wine as it simmers.
Cloves are used in everything from meat rubs and marinades to baked goods and sauces. The spice is also very commonly used in warm drinks like mulled wine, cider, chai, and hot toddies. Since it’s full of rich, warming flavor, it’s frequently reached for in the colder months, when we keep cozy with things like gingerbread, pumpkin pie, lamb korma, and Vietnamese pho. Cloves are also a common addition to Indian rice dishes.