Spices are among the most romanticized and storied of all food categories conjuring mood, memory, and even mysticism. Fall marks the unofficial beginning of spice season (you heard it here first) and to celebrate, we’re decoding three of our all time fall favorites.
While cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves have plenty of overlapping characteristics and complement each other well (you’ll find all three in ever-popular pumpkin pie spice, for instance), each has its own distinct personality and special place on the rack.
Cinnamon may be hard to say after a few glasses of mulled wine, but it’s also one of the most commonly used spices in the world, found in nearly every cuisine on the planet. Harvested from the inner bark of any variety of Cinnamomum tree, it’s dried into slender, spiraled sticks or ground into powder and revered for a rich warmth and heat. Nutmeg, another fragrant spice, is the dried seed from the fruit of the, well, Nutmeg tree, while cloves are the dried buds plucked from flowers of the Myrtaceae, or, you guessed it, “Clove tree.” Thumbtack-sized clove buds are harvested, dried, and either ground into powder or added whole, while nutmeg seeds, roughly the size of a peach pit, are similarly dried and ground or shaved fresh to finish a dish or garnish a drink. Cloves and nutmeg are both native to The Maluku or “Spice” Islands of Indonesia, but cultivated in any number of warm coastal climates while cinnamon hails from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
Perhaps most commonly associated with desserts and fancy pants beverages, all three play major roles in savory cooking too. Cinnamon’s complex heat does well with foods high in sugar like apples or tomatoes, and often features in stews, dry rubs, and rich South Asian and African cuisines. Nutmeg, with its earthy warmth and sweetness, pairs well with dairy, shining bright in cream-based soups or a good mac and cheese, while cloves add deep floral sweetness and perfume to soups, sauces, dressings and roasts.
A recipe may require cinnamon sticks or powder depending on the dish but powder is far more common. If fresh, a little goes a long way, so add carefully. It won’t spoil but does lose potency over time. Nutmeg is far superior when ground fresh, so don’t bother with the pre-ground stuff if you can help it. Invest in a Microplane to shave the nutmeg seed, as needed, or look for those nifty pepper-style grinders pre-loaded with nutmeg chunks for an easy fix. Cloves can be ground and mixed into recipes but are most often incorporated whole and removed before serving, as in biryani or mulled wine. Wrapping the woody nubs in cheese cloth will aid in extraction later, and whole cloves will last several years if packed well and stored in a cool dry place.
Properly storing any of them is the key to a long and happy spice life, so head on over to Chowhound’s Guide to Storing Spices for more.
Beyond adding exciting notes to countless cuisines, all three contain notable health benefits (bonus!). While cinnamon is chock full of antioxidants (more than garlic, even), cloves contain antimicrobials which aid in digestion and nutmeg has been said to relieve both tooth and stomach pain.
So, be it jazzing up an $8 cappuccino or adding flare to your holiday roast routine, these three spices are truly worth familiarizing yourself with and have fabulous uses far beyond the expected.
Apples, naturally high in sugar, play perfectly off of cinnamon’s heat. So break out the slow cooker for a fall flavor slumber party for the ages. Get the recipe.
In my humble opinion, a good béchamel is never complete without nutmeg. This one is classic, tried and true and can be used in any number of decadent pasta or potato dishes. Get our Béchamel Sauce recipe.
Eggnog is one of the holiday season’s infamous diet busters. Try this vegan rendition with a healthy dusting of nutmeg, of course. Get the recipe.
No-Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake Lasagna. Find a word in there that’s NOT amazing. I’ll wait… Get the recipe.
Mulled wine with cloves is a classic holiday party pleaser. Use a decent wine but don’t go crazy, just make sure it’s dry as the brandy, sugar, and spices will bring plenty of sweet. Das good. Get our German Mulled Wine recipe.
Fragrant cloves prefer a muted base flavor like pumpkin. Try this apple pumpkin spice cake with butter rum glaze to bring to your next holiday soiree. Get the recipe.
Make at least one rich glazed ham between November and March. They are fun and easy and this baked ham with pineapple brown sugar glaze calls for fragrant cloves. Get the recipe.
Cloves are an essential in pickling spice, and who doesn’t love pickles? Make a bunch and jar them to give as gifts to pleasantly surprised adults and/or disappointed children. Get the recipe.
Header image courtesy of Kompasiana.