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What Are Cloves? Here’s Your Guide To This Versatile, Worldly Spice!

What Are Cloves? Here’s Your Guide To This Versatile, Worldly Spice!

Are you wondering what are cloves? Unlock everything we know about the infamous spice, from its origin, what makes cloves different from other spices, and much more.
This popular aromatic spice is native to Indonesia and Madagascar.  
Cloves are the unopened flower buds of an evergreen tree whose scientific name is Syzygium aromaticum.   
These fragrant ground clove buds, used as a cooking spice found in a kitchen spice rack, are handpicked before the flower opens.   

After picking, lay out the cloves to dry..  

The name “clove” comes from the Latin word for nail, clavus, since its shape resembles small nails.  
Cloves are a very intensely flavored, popular spice with up to 20% essential oil.

Both whole and ground cloves are widely available nowadays, especially in local grocery stores.  

When the clove is harvested, it is in its whole form, then picked, dried, and packaged. 

They are dark brown with a sometimes reddish hue.  

If you are cooking and your recipe lists cloves and you only have ground cloves, no problem. 

You can substitute whole cloves for ground cloves but pay careful attention to follow the equivalent.  

The generally agreed upon substitution ratio is ¾ teaspoon ground cloves to one teaspoon whole cloves.  

This one is due to their strong taste, and once the clove is ground, its flavor is stronger, so you need less of it. 

You can grind your own whole cloves and ground them at home with a coffee or spice grinder, spice mill, or pestle and mortar. 

Then, you can use a teaspoon of ground clove for your food or drinks.

When you use whole cloves in a dish, remove them before serving. They are really bitter if you bite into one, and their tough texture is very much like tree bark..

What do cloves taste like?

Cloves are one of the most powerful, intense spices in the world, comparatively speaking!  

Their taste is intense, bitter with a hint of sweetness. 

The other unique aspect is the “warmth” that comes from cloves which is why they are used quite often in tandem with similar spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.  

When a recipe calls for whole cloves, those are only included while cooking and then removed before serving.  

Cloves can act as an anesthetic and leave behind numbness because of the eugenol found naturally occurring in cloves.  

The most important rule to remember about cloves is that a little goes a long way due to their intense flavor!

Origins of cloves

Remember the Spice Road or the Dutch East Indies from your early 17th century world history lessons?  

Well, cloves were a huge part of that scenario.  

They were found on the Molucca Islands, a part of Indonesia, which is also called Indonesian Maluku or the Spice Islands.  

The Dutch wanted to control their monopoly, and the second Anglo-Dutch war broke out for control of this clove trade industry in Asian countries.  

However, during the latter half of the 18th century, the French smuggled cloves out eventually, and seedlings made their way to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.  

Back in the late middle ages, cloves were considered valuable in the middle east, the rest of Asia, including ancient China, and in Western cultures!

Ways to use cloves

Oh, you are going to be so very inspired by all the uses of cloves, some of which you will nod your head and think yes, of course, while others may surprise you.  

This list shows just how versatile cloves really are! In the condiment realm, cloves are used in Worcestershire sauce as well as many ketchup varieties.  

In cooking, cloves are used to flavor sauces, savory dishes, pot roasts, ham, soups, warm beverages, rice dishes, cookies, cakes, and Vietnamese pho.  

In your baking, you may run across cloves in gingerbread cookies and various cake recipes.

Several spice blends also include Chinese five-spice, Indian garam masala, pickling spice, and pumpkin pie spice. 

Warm beverages described as having a “spicy warmth” taste often have cloves and other rich, fragrant spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, as in apple cider, masala chai tea, and mulled wine.  

Because cloves are so aromatic, beautiful pomander balls and essential oils are made with them.  

You can also buy clove oil or clove extract if you need it for common uses, like adding more flavor to your tea or food. 

Whole cloves are inserted into an entire orange or other fruit, then used as an air freshener or simply the easiest way to have beautiful fragrant decoration. 

Tips on buying whole cloves

There are many reasons why cloves may be expensive where you live.  

Indonesia still produces much of the world’s supply of cloves, so distribution costs are high.  

The clove tree only yields about four to seven pounds of cloves per year.

Cloves are susceptible to weather and have to be picked by hand when they are the right size.  

When buying cloves, if possible, look for large ones that you can make out the head and stems.  

As far as color goes, you are looking for a healthy reddish-brown.

How long do whole cloves last?

In researching the answer to this question, there is no definitive answer that is agreed upon, except that whole cloves’ spice and strength lasts significantly longer than that of ground cloves.  

Some experts say the shelf life is two to three years, while others say three to four years.  

The litmus test to tell if they are still good is by the strength of their aroma. 

How long do ground cloves last?

Once whole cloves have been ground, their flavor and freshness last for about one year. They need to be kept dry conditions, covered tightly. 

Some chefs keep whole cloves on hand and then simply grind them up when they are needed for the freshest smell and taste.  

Since they are so strong to begin with, even a bit after that time frame, they can still be used if stored correctly.  

If the packaging on your purchased ground cloves has a “best by” date, it is not for safety, but how long the manufacturer believes they will be at their peak quality.  

If stored properly, cloves rarely spoil. 

They simply lose their flavor and potency.  

This fact means when they are used, they will not achieve the same flavorful result as you would expect.

How to store whole cloves

There is indeed a direct correlation between how well cloves are stored, whether whole or ground and how long they last!  

Cloves need to be stored in a cool, dark, dry location, like a pantry or cupboard.  

They should be kept in tightly sealed glass containers away from direct sunlight or heat. 

Basically, avoid storing cloves next to your stove, since it’s often the warmest place in your kitchen.

How to store ground cloves

Similar to the whole cloves, ground cloves need to be stored away from their enemies of heat, light, and oxygen!   

Find a room temperature or slightly cooler, dry, and dark space.  

Make sure to keep them in opaque glass jars with airtight lids. 

Each of these precautions will reduce the risk of oxidation and loss of flavor.

🔓 Need Clove Substitutes? Check This Out! 🔓

The bottom line

Cloves make a lovely aromatic addition to the home cook’s pantry, not just for fall flavors in baked goods, but also in home-strung scented swag, poked into whole hams, and potpourri simmering in a crockpot or on the stove. 

Every house should smell that good!

Let us know if you have a favorite recipe that uses cloves.

Cinnamon Coffee With Cloves

Cinnamon Coffee With Cloves

Yield: Serves two

Spice up your usual coffee with this cinnamon coffee with cloves


  • 5 t instant coffee or 2 c freshly brewed unflavored coffee
  • 4 t sugar
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 c water
  • 1 cinnamon stick


  1. Add the water, instant coffee, cinnamon stick, and cloves in a saucepan. (If using brewed coffee, leave out the water.)
  2. Bring to a light simmer and leave it to stand for about five to seven minutes.
  3. Strain the coffee to remove spices.
  4. Add in your sugar and stir to dissolve.
  5. Cover and let sit for four minutes. 
  6. Add more sweetener to taste or use sweetened whipped cream to top.

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