Throughout the ages bay leaves have been a symbol of triumph, victory, and achievement. Greek olympians wore crowns of bay leaves to mark their athletic win. Roman emperor Caesar wore a bay leaf crown to emphasize his power, although many say it was to hide his baldness. Even today, skilled poets are recognized by governments and given the official title of poet laureate—laureate stems from the word laurel, another common name for bay leaves.
The culinary triumphs of bay leaves are just as significant. From mentions in the first century Roman cookbook Apicius, to the dog-eared recipe cards in your grandmother’s cupboard, bay leaves are an indispensable ingredient in the kitchen.
What Are Bay Leaves?
Bay leaves are an herb plucked from the evergreen tree, Lauris nobilis, also known as the bay laurel tree. (Not to be confused with the California bay laurel, Umbellularia californica.) Bay laurel trees are part of the greater Lauraceae family which includes other important plants like cinnamon and avocado trees. In fact, both cinnamon and avocado leaves are also popular cooking ingredients in their countries of origin. The bay laurel tree is native to Asia minor, and naturalized throughout the mediterranean. Turkey is the leading producer of quality bay laurel, and The Spice House’s source for premium bay leaves.
Bay laurel trees are commonly grown as a shrub, but can reach heights over 50 feet tall. It is even a popular landscaping plant in the milder climates of the United States. When cultivated for food, select branches are pruned for harvest and set in the shade to dry. Leaves are later handpicked from the branch before further curing. Drying leaves in direct sunlight turns them brown and diminishes their essential oils and aromas.
Quality bay leaves should be a pale green color and free of blemishes and sold in mostly whole pieces. It is okay if there are a few broken leaves, but a bag of crumbled pieces is not preferred.
What Do Bay Leaves Taste Like?
When the essential oils are allowed to diffuse out of the dried leaf, it adds a spicy bitterness that balances and enhances rich recipes like stews, gravies, and cream sauces.
Bay leaves pair well with other flavors like allspice, basil, cardamom, chiles, cloves, fennel, ginger, garlic, onion, shallot, lemon, orange, marjoram, oregano, paprika, parsley, chervil, black pepper, rosemary, savory, sage, and thyme.
Like all quality herbs and spices, a container of bay leaves should offer a fragrant aroma when opened. If the bay leaves in your spice cabinet have no scent, it is time to refresh your supply.
How Do You Use Bay Leaves in Cooking?
Bay leaves are integral for flavoring soups, stocks, stews, sauces, braised dishes, roasts, legumes, rice dishes, marinades, and pickles. They should be added to recipes early so as to release all their pungent flavors, and removed before serving as whole leaves can be sharp and difficult to digest.
Dried bay leaves can be bloomed in oil like other spices, waking up their flavor and releasing it into the cooking oil. Consider this when you are braising or sautéing a dish. Lightly fry the bay leaf in the same oil you will sear meat in later.
For a stronger release of flavor, crack the bay leaves before adding them to your recipe. This does make them more difficult to remove later, so consider using a muslin bag. For the strongest flavor, try using powdered bay leaves. Be sure to start small. An eighth of a teaspoon is a good amount to substitute for a whole bay leaf. Ground bay leaves save you the chore of removing leaves before serving. You can also add them to your homemade spice rubs.
French cuisine and cooking techniques are no stranger to bay leaves. Their bitter, aromatic flavor is essential in rich sauces, like the classic bechamel. Bay leaves help form the quintessential bouquet garni—a tied bundle of herbs, typically thyme springs, rosemary, parsley, and chervil. This is meant to simmer with other ingredients and can easily be removed later. If you take half an onion and stab a bay leaf into it with a couple cloves, you wind up with an oignon piqué. Simmer this “onion pique” into cream sauces and clear broths to add rich flavors without affecting color or texture.
Bay leaves can also be used in recipes that aren’t liquid, especially roasted fingerling potatoes. Toss potatoes in olive oil, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Add them to a shallow roasting pan with a few gently cracked bay leaves before covering with parchment paper and foil. Roast in the oven until potatoes are tender. The outside of the potatoes will take on the scent of the bay leaves, delivering an interesting depth of flavor.
If you have any bay leaf questions or have a favorite recipe that uses bay leaves, email us at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.
Article by Geoff Marshall, Staff Writer