Spice It Up: Cloves
Cloves are made from the unopened flower buds of the clove tree, a small tropical member of the evergreen family. The tree is native to the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, also known as the “Spice Islands”, although it’s also grown in Madagascar and Tanzania. When the flower buds change from a pale green color to a bright red color, they are harvested and dried. Named after its distinctive shape, the word clove comes from the Latin word clavus, meaning nail. The dried flower buds can be used for cooking and seasoning as well as medicinal purposes
The history of cloves is similar to the history of nutmeg and mace. Cloves were extremely popular throughout Europe, leading the Portuguese and Dutch to fight for control of the islands that grew these spices. The spice trade was incredibly lucrative, with nutmeg and cloves leading the market. Cloves were worth their weight in gold. Their value only began to decrease once the French introduced the clove tree to Mauritius in 1770, followed by Guiana, Brazil and the West Indies. Today, 80% of commercial clove still comes from Indonesia.
Cooking With Cloves
Clove is a pungent warm spice with a sweet yet astringent flavor that is great for both sweet and savory dishes. Although it’s a warm spice that is often grouped with nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, cloves have a much more powerful flavor so they are typically used in much smaller quantities. The intense flavor comes from the compound eugenol, which is also used for medicinal purposes. Cloves are very common in traditional Indian dishes and are used to flavor sauces, soups and rice. It’s also very popular in Mexican cuisine, in which it’s typically paired with cumin or cinnamon.
Eugenol is the main element in the essential oil that is made from cloves. The oil is popular for adding to perfumes, flavoring synthetic vanilla and it’s also an important incense element in Chinese and Japanese cultures. Eugenol is thought to have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and anesthetic properties and it has historically been used in dentistry. It’s commonly found in over-the-counter medicines, throat sprays and mouthwashes. Because of its antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties, it’s also thought to be effective in healing skin ailments and blemishes. Beyond medicinal uses, clove oil has been used as a natural herbicide and even a mosquito repellent. Plus, cloves are commonly smoked in cigarettes called kretek in Indonesia.
Buying and Storing
You can find cloves in the grocery store either ground or whole. Whole cloves tend to maintain their flavor and potency longer than ground cloves. When stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, whole cloves will keep for around a year while ground cloves will only keep for up to six months. Because cloves have a hard, woody texture, they are not eaten whole and are normally removed before serving, but you can always grind them into a powder using a coffee grinder.
Spice It Up: Easy Ways To Use Cloves
- Add ground cloves and curry powder to sauteed veggies with meat or tofu
- Add cloves and cinnamon sticks to apple cider when heating it on the stove (just make sure to strain them out)
- Pierce an onion with whole cloves and to soups, broths or braised dishes to impart flavor without having to grind the cloves or pick them out later
- Spice up a fruit compote with ground cloves and serve over breakfast waffles or alongside a creamy cheese as an appetizer
- Add ground cloves with walnuts and raisins to your favorite stuffing recipe
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