“Add in one bay leaf…”
How many recipes have you encountered with some variant of this instruction? Even on this site it seems practically every soup, thick sauce, and stew recipe calls for at least one bay leaf to be added. We add them, let them simmer, but they’re not eaten in the final result...and their purpose seems questionable.
So what are bay leaves? And why do we use them in our cooking?
An ancient plant
Bay leaves are not a recent innovation, or even something known only to the modern age. They’ve been with us since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. If you’ve ever seen the crowns of leaves (known as laurels) worn by rulers and scholars of the time, they were made from fresh bay leaves. It’s even where the term laureate comes from.
In the past, bay leaves were generally used as medicine and as an insecticide, as well as in cooking. Through the Middle Ages, the leaves were seen as somewhat magical, as some believed they could induce abortions. To this day herbalists and homeopaths still embrace bay leaves for their potential healing properties, while the rest of us simply see them as herbs.
Not the star, but an accompaniment
If you were to ask me a week ago to describe the taste of a bay leaf, I’d honestly have no clue what to tell you. In research, I’ve read descriptions of its flavor as that of medicine, like cough syrup. Others characterize the taste of bay leaves as bitter or pungent, but with a flowery fragrance.
These descriptions might sound gross, but the real power of bay leaves is how they more enhance the existing flavors of foods. They’re not a primary ingredient you taste, like garlic, salt, or oregano, but more an accompanient...a foundation to place your primary flavors upon.
The best way to understand the benefit of bay leaves is if you attempt to make a pot of chicken broth or tomato sauce without them. You might notice the final result has a dull flavor that lacks vibrance. That’s the benefit of bay leaves. They just add aroma and enhance the overall vibrance of the final result.
In your cooking
There’s no rocket science to using bay leaves. Simply drop one or more into a bubbling pot of stew, soup, or sauce just before you go into a long simmer. It is best to remove them from the pot when finished, but unlike some claims, you won’t poison someone if they happen to find (or even ingest) the used bay leaf. Some will break up the leaves into bits before adding them into the pot, which is perfectly ok.
Despite its Mediterranean notoriety, variants of the bay leaf can be found in India, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and California. While they share the same name and origin, they do have distinctive differences in their flavors. Unless you have access to good herbal stores, it’s likely the dried leaves you buy off the grocery shelf will be Mediterranean, which is perfect for most cases you’ll need them.
While most store-bought bay leaves come dried, you can purchase fresh ones from various sources. However, it is more recommended to use dried leaves for your typical stews, soups, and sauces. Fresh bay leaves have a much stronger flavor over the dried ones. They’re honestly not ideal for simmering, but more in dishes that require a shorter cooking time.
Lastly, if you use dried bay leaves, don’t keep them in your cupboard or pantry for longer than a year. They lose their flavor over time, and thus would be useless if they get too old. Fresh ones can be stored in the freezer, but I’d recommend using them fresh, and sticking to dried one for long-term storage.