Nutmeg and cloves are two widely available and heavily used spices that you will find in most cooks’ spice cabinets. They complement each other in many recipes but can you use one in place of the other? How different are they? Let’s take a look at nutmeg and cloves in this SPICEography Showdown.
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How does nutmeg differ from cloves?
Nutmeg and cloves come from different botanical families. Nutmeg comes from the Myristica fragrans tree, while cloves come from the Syzygium aromaticum tree. The Myristica fragrans tree is in the magnolia family; cloves are related to myrtle and eucalyptus.
In their whole form, nutmeg and cloves look nothing alike. Nutmeg is a grayish brown nut that comes from the stone of a fruit. Whole nutmegs are approximately the size of a small grape but might be slightly smaller or larger. Whole cloves are the flower bud of their parent tree and typically measure a little less than 1/2 an inch long.
Cloves are the size and approximate shape of pushpins; they have a pointed end and a somewhat spherical end. Even when ground, nutmeg, and cloves have different appearances. Nutmeg has a medium brown color approximately the same shade as ground coriander, while cloves are a much darker coffee color.
Nutmeg and cloves have different flavor profiles. Nutmeg’s flavor is most often described as nutty and warm. It has a mellow quality with elements of caramel and a touch of pepper. Cloves have a much sharper flavor and aroma with elements of menthol, camphor, and pepper. Cloves are warmer than nutmeg and more intensely aromatic as well.
Nutmeg and cloves differ in how they are used. Nutmeg has to be grated for use. The whole nut is not used in culinary applications. Cloves may be used ground or whole.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Nutmeg is sometimes recommended as a substitute for cloves, since both show up in many of the same spice blends. Nutmeg and cloves taste nothing alike but will work in many of the same dishes. In some sweet applications like fruit pies, you can use nutmeg to replace cloves, since both spices will work equally well.
Using nutmeg as a clove substitute will work best if the dish contains other strong spices that may make the switch less obvious. Because nutmeg is so much less potent than cloves, you will want to use more of it when using it as a clove substitute. Use twice the amount of ground nutmeg that your recipe requires for ground cloves.
Cloves can stand in for nutmeg in some applications but might work in others. You can use cloves to replace nutmeg in some savory applications like jerk seasoning, but it won’t work in sausages or pasta sauces. Like nutmeg, cloves will enhance sweet applications like fruit pies since many recipes require both spices, but it might not be a good addition to hot chocolate.
Because of the intense flavor, you will want to use less of the ground cloves when replacing nutmeg. Start by using 1/4 of the amount the recipe requires for nutmeg, and increase to taste if necessary.
When should you use nutmeg, and when should you use cloves?
Use nutmeg in baked goods like muffins and fruit pies or spice blends like garam masala and ras el hanout. Sprinkle it over eggnog or cider.
Use cloves in spice blends for fruit pies, as well as in dry rubs for meat. Whole cloves are essential for mulled wine and make a delightful addition to ham.