If you put all the sweet spices into a battle royal, clove would win every time. Cardamom would be afraid to break a nail. Allspice, usually a supporting player anyway, wouldn't stand a chance. Nutmeg, perhaps, would put up a fight, but its strength is so fleeting it'd tap out in the first ten minutes. Clove is definitely the brashest, bossiest spice you could put in your gingerbread.
That bossiness is due to eugenol, the chemical that makes up most of the taste of clove. Like most other prized spices of medieval Europe, cloves were valued for their power to mask the taste of rotting meat. But eugenol also has preservative and medicinal properties, which in a culture lacking proper refrigeration and medicine, made it literally worth its weight in gold.
When used too liberally, the flavor of cloves can run rampant over everything else—eugenol's a tough customer to cross, which may be why modern cooking isn't so kind to the spice. But that sass is indispensable to many a European, South East Asian, and Middle Eastern recipe. Cloves are much more than gingerbread fodder, so if you've never paid them any mind, now's the time.
What Pairs Well With Cloves?
More than 85 percent percent of the complex flavor we identify as clove is due to eugenol. This is helpful from a culinary point of view: Other ingredients rich in eugenol tend to pair nicely with cloves. Unsurprisingly, cinnamon and allspice are high on that list, but so are some less obvious flavors: vanilla, red wine, and basil.
Okay, so vanilla's still too obvious for you? When's the last time you tasted with vanilla with clove in the absence of cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg? Sweets like cookies and ice cream are straightforward choices options, ones which really let the flavor of clove shine through when it's so often denied the opportunity. But also consider savory possibilities, such as infusing some cloves and the tiniest bit of vanilla in a red wine sauce or marinade for steak (clove loves red meat).
"Try poaching pears in red wine laced with a couple cloves until they melt. Eat with vanilla ice cream. Then go back for seconds and devour the rest."
Oak barrels used to age red wine are sometimes high in eugenol,* which may explain why cloves are such a go-to in mulled wine. To my palette, cloves bring out and round off fruity flavors; try poaching pears in red wine laced with a couple cloves until they melt. Eat with vanilla ice cream. Then go back for seconds and devour the rest.
Cloves can add profound complexity to savory dishes. My favorite trick is a classic, but by no means old-hat. It's a French technique called an onion clou ("nailed onion"), in which a halved onion is studded with eight to twelve cloves and then added to a broth or braise. The onion's savory funk plays perfectly off the cloves' sweet numbing quality; your French onion soup or French lentil salads just wouldn't be the same without it.
Don't be afraid to look beyond Northern Europe when playing with cloves. It's a common spice in phở, the Vietnamese beef broth with rice noodles. If you use it, make sure to garnish with some eugenol-rich basil leaves. Cloves also pair very well with other mouth-numbing flavors like citrus peel, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. Try a lamb tagine with orange peel, olives, and cloves over rice. Or add some cloves to a Chinese red braise perfumed with star anise and Sichuan pepper.
Buying And Using Cloves
You can find cloves in almost any supermarket, most of the time in whole and ground form. I keep both on hand: whole for anything brothy where the cloves can be fished out later and ground for baking. Cloves are the one spice I definitely don't recommend grinding at home: There's a reason the French word for them is "nail," and if any chunks get in your cake you won't be happy. Plus clove oil will ruin any plastic in your grinder, such as the lid. It's almost impossible to completely wash away the oils, which form pits in the plastic, leaving little nests for undesirable grit and flavors that linger more than they should. Hey, I told you cloves were bossy. So respect the clove, and you'll be richly rewarded.
*And vanillin, the chemical fake vanilla is made of. Yup, imitation vanilla is made of wood pulp. The high amounts of eugenol in the wood could be responsible for that noxious numbing flavor.