Cloves make a command performance during the holidays:  They’re on stage to flavor the pumpkin pie and gingerbread men, stud the Christmas ham, and make a fragrant pomander.

While their warmth and sweetness make them especially popular during fall and winter, cloves shouldn’t be hidden in the spice cabinet the rest of the year. One of the most penetrating and fragrant of spices, they uniquely combine sweet and pungent flavors that can add a subtle zip to soups, stews or chili, or even spice up a fruit salad.

Cloves are the unopened pink flowers of an evergreen tree known as Syzygium aromaticum, which is native to Southeast Asia. The buds are handpicked before they bloom and allowed to dry until they are dark brown in color, usually about ½ inch long, and resemble small nails. In fact, the word clove is derived from the Latin clavus, meaning nail. Their hard exterior belies a softer flesh, which has an oily compound that is essential to their flavor profile.

Cloves originated in Indonesia, specifically in an area called the Moluccas or Maluku, an archipelago once known as the Spice Islands. For a long time, they were only cultivated in this small region of the world. During the 16th and 17th centuries, cloves, along with nutmeg, were believed to have been worth more than their weight in gold, and control over these spices spawned expeditions as well as wars.

In 1605, the Dutch found their way into the spice trade and greedily set about building a monopoly. They destroyed the crops of other exploring countries and tried to limit the production to a single island. Their practice of destroying young trees greatly angered the natives who had a tradition of planting a clove tree upon the birth of a child. The life of that tree was psychologically tied directly to the child’s.  Eventually, the Dutch domination died, and cultivation of the trees spread.

Today, the leading producer is Zanzibar, but cloves are also grown commercially in the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, India, Pemba and Brazil.  In the United States, they are highly valued for their culinary uses as well as their fragrance, but in other parts of the world, cloves are also praised for their medicinal and therapeutic attributes.  Clove oil has been used in treating toothaches for centuries. You’ll find it as an ingredient in many over-the-counter products, like toothpaste, mouthwash insect repellants, pain relievers, and perfumes.

Buying & Storing 

Cloves can be purchased whole or in powder form. Ground cloves, although convenient for baking, lose flavor rapidly. Consider buying whole cloves and grinding them at home. While ground cloves will stay fresh for about six months, whole cloves will last for about a year. To grind your own, either use a mortar and pestle or reserve a small coffee grinder just for grinding spices.

To test the quality of a clove, squeeze it with a fingernail. If it releases some oil, it’s fresh. Or, place one in a cup of water. If it sinks or floats below the surface,  it’s stale.

Like most spices, cloves, either whole or ground, should be kept tightly sealed in a cool, dark, dry place.

While supermarket spices are certainly adequate for everyday use, try buying cloves from internet sources or specialty markets for superior spices.

Preparing & Cooking

The flavor of cloves is strong and should be used with a light hand. But they can add a subtle difference to everyday foods, beyond their traditional uses in baking.

  • Pierce a whole onion with cloves and immerse it in simmering broths or poaching liquids, like steamed shrimp.
  • In the same way, stud an orange or lemon and simmer it, along with whole nutmeg and cinnamon sticks, in a mulled wine or apple cider.
  • Adding ground cloves to sautéed onions gives dishes an Indian-like zest.
  • Use cloves when poaching pears.

Despite their powerful flavor, cloves are rarely the star of the show. They’re more of a team player and work well with cinnamon, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg. They’re an essential ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, Indian garam masalas, American mixed pickling spice, and spiced teas.

In the Middle East, cloves are a common ingredient in chutneys, curries and tea blends. Mexican cuisine features the spice combined with cocoa, cumin and cinnamon.

Flavor Affinities

The major component of cloves is eugenol, a compound that can be used as a local anesthetic. Clove oil is made up of between 80 to 95 percent eugenol, and it’s ability to stave off a toothache as well as flavor food is what made this spice so valuable in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The oils in cinnamon, basil and nutmeg, also contain eugenol, explaining their natural affinity for one another in seasoning food.

In addition to ham, cloves enhance pork and red meats as well. And while commonly used with ginger, allspice, and other “sweet” spices, they also team up well with vanilla and red wine.

Rosemary Wolbert

Rosemary Wolbert is a writer cum gentlewoman farmer. A former corporate communicator, she now relishes the quiet country life — just reading, cooking and writing in Pennsylvania. She publishes the blog Sprigs of Rosemary and writes a monthly newspaper column, “Good Food Matters” and believes food bridges all kinds of barriers, real or imagined.