How to Use Cloves

Author: Shelley Bennetts   Date Posted:10 April 2019 

About Cloves

Cloves are the unopened, immature flower buds of a type of Myrtle (Myrtaceae), Syzygium aromaticum. Native to the Molucca islands of Indonesia, they are grown in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Madagascar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. Indonesia now buys the bulk of the world stock for their Clove cigarettes!

Cloves were precious trading commodities in Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries, worth more than their weight in gold. They were prized as an aphrodisiac, a highly valued culinary flavor, a food preservative, and a pharmaceutical cure-all.

Apparently, the powerful combination of cinnamon and clove infused in hot water and taken as a tea works to stimulate sexual energy and attraction!

Among spices, clove showed the higher content of polyphenols and antioxidant compounds. Of all spices, cloves are perfect as a natural alternative to synthetic preservatives. They have the highest content of polyphenols and antioxidant compounds, and an ability to reduce oxidization, one of the main causes of food deterioration. Before refrigeration was available, cloves were one of the most important spices used for dealing with the preservation foods, particularly meats. That would explain the practices of clove-studded hams, and jars of preserved fruit and vegetables with cloves floating in the liquid.

Now, cloves are underappreciated and rarely used in medicine. They contain a chemical called eugenol that may help to decrease pain and fight infections due to their antimicrobial actions. Clove oil has strong anti-fungal properties so can be used to treat acne and warts. The spice is carminative which means it eases digestion, and an anthelmintic which means it kills worms and parasites, And, If you’ve ever used clove for a toothache, you’ll know that they are an effective local anesthetic.
That’s worth keeping that in mind when you’re cooking with them! Use cloves with restraint. You don’t want dinner guests with numb mouths!

Whole Cloves or Ground Cloves?

The name ‘clove’ comes from the Latin word ‘clavus’, meaning nail. They look a little like a nail, and if you were to accidentally bite into one, it could damage your gums just like a nail would! It’s a wise cook who counts the number of cloves that go into a dish, so that the same number come out at the end of cooking. However, in a good Indian Biryani, it’s not unusual to find whole cloves, and other whole spices lurking amongst the rice. Most savoury dishes (and mulled wine) call for whole cloves which are full of flavour and very aromatic. Whole cloves will keep their potency for a long, long time despite the Best By Date on the label. 

You can grind whole cloves into a powder using a clean, dry coffee grinder, but be aware that the residual oil from the clove may taint the flavour of your next coffee! Ground cloves are available, but like all ground spices they lose their potency over time. Keep them sealed, in the dark and replace them with fresh when their Best By Date is reached. 

Ground cloves feature in many classic desserts and sauces. Think pumpkin pie, eggnog and bechamel sauce. 

How do Cloves Taste?

The clove spice is known for its intensity. These woody little flower buds pack one hell of a flavour kick! Slightly camphor-like, a little bitter and highly aromatic, the flavour is somewhat like Allspice, but much, much more potent. It’s recommended to remove whole cloves from a dish before serving because if someone happens to bite into one, it will overpower the palate and potentially leave their tongue numb. If you’re using powdered cloves, a small amount will complement other ingredients, too much and you risk overpowering all other flavours.

Cloves in Spice Blends

All that said, cloves have been used for cooking over many centuries because of their flavour. In the cuisine of many cultures, it’s cloves that make their unique dishes so spectacular. In the very distinctive Vietnamese Pho, a local broth, the flavour of clove is very subtle, but it’s what makes it so unique. The Northern Africans, Middle Easterners, Asians and Europeans all know how to use cloves to impart a special flavour to their local foods. 

In spice blends, you’ll notice that the amount of cloves used is minimal, less than most other ingredients. These blends are a balancing act of flavours, and very much at the discretion of the maker. It’s wise to make small quantities until you find the right balance. Fresh, home-crafted blends, balanced to your taste, are better than anything you’ll buy commercially. 


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