And should you buy whole or pre-ground?

That spice container tucked away behind your cinnamon and nutmeg? Ah yes, cloves. They are without a doubt a fascinating spice: a crown jewel in the earliest spice trades, a cornerstone of holiday baking, a history as a medicinal ingredient. Even their flavor contains intriguing contradictions: spicy yet cooling, sweet yet bitter, and above all incredibly pungent.   

But still you're asking: How do I cook with it? 

You've probably already made a few recipes with cloves (Heard of pumpkin pie spice?), or at least consumed it in dishes from the many cuisines that incorporate it (Indian biryani, Dominican arroz con leche, your grandma's traditional Easter ham). 

Here we'll explain how to shop for cloves (whole or ground?), how to cook with cloves (remember a little goes a long way!), and recipes to inspire you to pull out that jar of cloves and get cooking.

Credit: Getty / Drbouz

How to buy cloves

Ground cloves are readily available at your regular supermarket. When shopping for them, you'll come across either the ground or whole version, which are the dried flower buds of the tropical evergreen clove tree. These immature buds are small, reddish-brown, and shaped like a tiny spike or nail. (Their name comes from the Latin "clovus," which means nail.)

Now comes the key question: Should you buy cloves whole or ground? While it is hard to argue against the convenience of pre-ground spices, the flavor and aroma of freshly ground cloves (like with any spice) will offer much more depth and potency to your dish. 

The whole spice will also provide a longer shelf life, lasting up to a year when stored in an airtight container away from light. Ground cloves will last you about six months; after that, the spice will lose its potency and you should replace it.

How to cook with cloves

If you take away only one piece of culinary advice on cloves, let it be this: A little will go a long way. 

The potency of cloves' warmth, spice, and minty aroma can be a bit much if overused. A little bit of extra cinnamon sprinkled on top of your eggnog will go down nicely; a heavy hand on the ground cloves will veer towards overpowering. 

For recipes that call for ground cloves, use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to freshly grind the whole cloves (just make sure to clean it thoroughly after so the aroma doesn't linger). Other may call for whole cloves to be simmered with the dish, then removed at the end like you would with a bay leaf. This is important because whole cloves aren't the most pleasant to bite into, even after they've been cooked.

And if a recipe calls for cloves but you're out at the moment, lean on your other holiday-type spices. Use an equal amount of allspice or make an equal blend of nutmeg and cinnamon as an on-the-fly substitute.

Recipes with cloves

Cooking with cloves often means cooking with signature spice blends: Chinese five-spice powder, North Indian garam masala, American pumpkin pie spice. 

They're also a big part of the baking world, finding their way into treats like gingerbread, pumpkin pie, and the aforementioned arroz con leche, a Dominican spice rice pudding. They star in your favorite warm weather beverages like mulled wine, cider, and chai. Cloves are even used as a pickling spice and are a key ingredient in a classic béchamel sauce. 

Still need a bit more clove cooking inspiration? Check out these sweet, savory, and cocktail-hour worthy recipes featuring cloves: