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Ingredient Guide

A Guide to Cloves

21 January 2022

Get clever with cloves and discover more about the tiny spice with the full-sized flavour.

The small but mighty clove has been a sought-after spice for centuries. From its origins on a handful of tropical islands to its central role in European spice wars, this complex spice has had a big influence on cooking around the world.

What are cloves?

Cloves are the immature buds of the clove tree, harvested and dried. They’re dark reddish brown, measure about 1cm in length, and look like a small pin with a stem that leads to a bud of unopened petals.

Where do cloves come from?

Cloves originate from the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, also known as the Moluccas, or the Spice Islands. Today you’ll also find them growing in Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India, Tanzania, Zanzibar and other hot, tropical areas.

What do cloves taste like?

Intensely warming, cloves possess a fiery combination of spicy, sweet and bitter. A little goes a long way, so use them in moderation so they don’t overwhelm any subtler flavours.

Whole vs ground cloves: what’s the difference?

Whole cloves are often used in slow-cooked meat and rice dishes, and turn up the wow factor when studded into meats or vegetables. Grinding cloves releases the flavour more quickly, giving the powdered form instant impact in quick-cook meals and baking.

What cuisine can cloves be used in?

You’ll find cloves distinctive warmth in a wide range of international cuisines, including Indian, African, Middle Eastern, Mexican and Mediterranean. This small but mighty spice also appears in everything from curries and rice dishes to puddings and hot drinks.

How to use cloves

Stud joints of meat with whole cloves to gently infuse them with flavour – simply push the stems in until just the bud shows. Drop them into stocks, soups and stews; add them to rice for a subtle lift. Use in mulled wine and spiced cider, and stir them into fruity dishes like stewed apple to bring a wonderful complexity to the sweetness. Take out whole cloves once you’ve finished cooking; they’re woody and bitter if you bite into them. 

Ground cloves are often included in spice rubs and marinades, including Chinese five-spice, ras el hanout and garam masala. The burst of intense flavour from ground cloves also gives depth to sweet dishes like gingerbread and pumpkin pie.

How to prepare cloves

For the freshest flavour, grind whole cloves into powder as and when you need it. Use a spice grinder or a pestle and mortar, pressing and twisting on the cloves to break them down. If it’s tricky, try removing the stem and simply crushing the buds. 

Don’t have a pestle and mortar? Put your cloves into a sealable plastic bag and crush them as best you can with the end of a rolling pin or the bottom of a mug.

Where to buy cloves

Whole and ground cloves are readily available in the spice section of supermarkets. 

How to store cloves

Keep both whole and ground cloves in an airtight container, stored in a cool, dark place. 

If they’re stored properly, cloves will pack a punch for about a year; ground cloves will fade after around three months. If you find your whole cloves are losing their intensity, bring back the flavour by dry frying them over a medium heat for a minute or two. 

Complimentary herbs and spices

Cloves pair well with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, as they’re all rich in flavour and slightly sweet. The heat of cloves also works well with peppercorns.

Substitutions for cloves

Allspice is a great swap for ground cloves in many recipes, as it has a very similar flavour profile. You can also try nutmeg, either on its own or combined with cinnamon.

If your recipe calls for whole cloves, you can use ground cloves as a substitute. Just remember that ground cloves will give a stronger hit of flavour, so use slightly less: substitute a teaspoon of whole cloves with around ¾ of a teaspoon of ground cloves.

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