Cloves Vs. Cinnamon: SPICEography Showdown

Clove and cinnamon are two staple spices that every home baker should keep on hand. They are versatile and key ingredients in many sweet and savory dishes. If you are trying to decide between them for a particular application, the questions below should provide information on each spice’s qualities. Let’s compare clove and cinnamon in this SPICEography Showdown.

How do cloves differ from cinnamon?

Cloves and cinnamon have different origins. Cloves are from the Moluccas in Indonesia where they are harvested from the Syzygium aromaticum tree, which is in the Myrtle Family. Cloves are the tree’s unopened flower buds that are dried. Cinnamon is the bark of trees in the Cinnamomum genus, most notably Cinnamomum verum and Cinnamomum cassia. Cinnamomum verum is called Ceylon cinnamon or true cinnamon but the cassia variety is the more common. Cinnamomum verum trees are native to India and parts of the region around it; Cinnamomum cassia is native to China.

Cloves and cinnamon look nothing alike. Whole cloves resemble short nails — they are tiny dark brown spheres consisting of the unopened petals of the flower bud connected to a calyx. When cloves are ground to a powder, they have a color similar to that of dark-roast coffee. Whole cinnamon is sold as cinnamon sticks that consist of rolled strips of the cinnamon trees’ inner bark. With Ceylon cinnamon, the bark is thinner and more papery with a dull pale brown color; cassia cinnamon has a thicker bark and a deeper orange tint.

Clove and cinnamon have little in common taste-wise. Cloves have a warm, bitter pungency that comes from the compound called eugenol. Eugenol gives cloves their flavor and plays a role in the flavor profiles of allspice and bay leaves, both of which share some of the same notes with clove. Clove’s flavor is camphoraceous and piney with elements of eucalyptus.

The different kinds of cinnamon get the distinctive parts of their flavor profile from their essential oil called cinnamaldehyde. Both Ceylon cinnamon and cassia cinnamon have a sweet and spicy flavor accompanied by a woody note. Ceylon cinnamon is said to have resinous citrus notes while cassia cinnamon is sweeter, warmer and woodier.

Can you use clove as a substitute for cinnamon (and vice versa?)

Cloves will not make a good cinnamon substitute. The clove flavor is very different from that of cinnamon in that it is not as sweet. Recipes that require cinnamon will be missing its distinctive sweetness if you replace it with cloves. You may be able to get away with combining clove with a sweeter spice like nutmeg to replace cinnamon but the resulting flavor will still be very different from cinnamon.

Cinnamon will not make a good clove substitute because it is too sweet and lacks clove’s bitter, pungent qualities. Replacing cloves with cinnamon in a spice blend won’t ruin the flavor profile but will make it much sweeter than it was before.

When should you use cloves, and when should you use cinnamon?

Use cloves when you need the slight bitterness and intense camphoraceous qualities of clove. For example, whole cloves are used to stud whole hams because the flavor can help to cut through the mouth-coating fat. You can also grind your cloves to add them to a Chinese five-spice mix or to make your own pumpkin pie spice blend. Cloves are also good in mulled wine and masala chai lattes.

Use cinnamon as the main spice in cinnamon rolls and sprinkle it onto your oatmeal. Cinnamon is also a key ingredient for cookies, French toast and churros.