Bay leaves are a fragrant leaf from the laurel tree used as an herb. Bay leaves are available whole—either fresh or dried—or ground into a powder. The leaves are added to slow-cooked recipes, such as soups, sauces, and stews, and are removed before serving the dish. They have a floral and herbal scent reminiscent of oregano and thyme and are used more often than any other herb.
What Are Bay Leaves?
Bay leaves come from the bay laurel plant, an evergreen shrub that grows slowly in warm climates. The plants are grown for ornamental use and dried and used in cooking. The thick and leathery leaves are elongated with pointy ends. Most often, recipes call for dried bay leaves, which have a slightly stronger scent than fresh.
Varieties of Bay Leaves
There are two main varieties of culinary bay leaves: Turkish (or Mediterranean) bay leaves and California bay leaves. The Turkish variety is the most common, with a more subtle flavor compared to California bay leaves, which have more potency and a slightly mint taste. They are distinguishable by the shape of the leaf: Turkish has the more familiar short and fat leaf versus the thinner and longer silhouette of the California variety. The majority of fresh leaves sold in the U.S. are California bay leaves while the dried come from Turkey. Adding a fresh California bay leaf to a recipe could overpower the flavors of the dish and, thus, dried Turkish bay leaves are often preferred.
Other varieties of bay leaves are used throughout the world, including the West Indian bay leaf and Indonesian bay leaf. There are a few species of bay leaf that are poisonous, specifically the cherry laurel and mountain laurel, but these varieties aren't sold as herbs. The bay leaves used for culinary purposes are not toxic and are safe to cook with.
Bay leaves have a long history, originating as an ornamental symbol of honor and success, and worn by Roman and Greek emperors, as well as Olympians, scholars, heroes, and poets. Because of this, two terms were created: baccalaureate, which is the reward for earning a bachelor's degree, meaning "berries of laurel," and poet laureate, an honor given by a government to someone to compose poems for special events.
Fresh vs. Dried
Fresh bay leaves are shiny green on top with a paler green on the underside. As the leaves dry, the color becomes uniform and muted. The flavor also intensifies. Fresh bay leaves are often much more expensive and do not last as long as dried bay leaves.
What Do They Taste Like?
Since bay leaves aren't eaten, the flavor is more about what they bring to a recipe—and that is up for much debate. Many cooks believe that bay leaves don't contribute any taste at all while others find the herb adds a subtle depth of flavor. So, while bay leaves do not add overwhelming and distinct flavors to any dish, they can be thought of as a "supporting actor," in that they help coax out other flavors and spices in whatever dish you are making.
Cooking With Bay Leaves
Because the leaves do not soften as they cook, bay leaves are added to simmering sauces or included in a braising liquid, and then removed before serving. The leaves have sharp points that can cut the mouth, cause choking, or even slice into the digestive tract. Simply add the whole dried leaf to the recipe and take out once the dish is finished cooking. If using the fresh, California bay leaves, add half of the amount called for (which may mean tearing a leaf in half).
Bay leaves should be added at the beginning of cooking as the longer they simmer, the more time they have to release flavor and allow it to infuse the dish. In addition to simmering in soups and stews, bay leaves are great for stuffing into the cavity of a chicken before roasting it, and can also be added to the liquid when cooking rice. When ground into a powder, bay leaf is used similarly to a spice.
Recipes With Bay Leaves
Bay leaves can be used in many types of cuisines, from Spanish and French to Indian and Thai. They are used when braising meat, making stock, and are also a common ingredient in pickling brines.
Where to Buy Bay Leaves
Bay leaves can be purchased in most major grocery stores. Fresh bay leaves may be more difficult to find, but they are usually grouped with the fresh herbs in the produce department. Dried bay leaves come in a spice jar and can be found in the spice aisle of your supermarket.
The fresh leaves should be bright green and waxy looking and twist without tearing. Look for dried leaves that are free of blemishes, cracks, and tears.
Fresh bay leaves can be placed in a sealed zip-top bag and stored in the refrigerator where they will last for a week or two. Dried bay leaves can be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry, and dark spot, such as the spice cabinet or pantry; they will last up to two years before losing their aroma. You can also store the sealed dried bay leaves in the freezer, which will help the bay leaf retain its flavor and floral potency.
Cherry laurel identification and control. Cherry laurel or English laurel identification and control: Prunus laurocerasus - King County. https://kingcounty.gov/services/environment/animals-and-plants/noxious-weeds/weed-identification/english-laurel.aspx.
Guide to Poisonous Plants – College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences – Colorado State University. https://csuvth.colostate.edu/poisonous_plants/Plants/Details/112.