The Easy Way To Check If Bay Leaves Are Fresh Enough To Bother Using

Bay leaves: everybody uses them, but how many people know why we cook with them? They sit in your pantry, waiting to be tossed into a soup or sauce when a recipe inevitably calls for them, only to be fished out at the end with little thought to what difference they made. Bay leaves are an enigmatic enough presence that even pros like Ina Garten don't know what they are there for. But is the problem with bay leaves or with us? Are they actually useless, or do we just not show them the proper care?

The fact is spices and dried herbs don't last nearly as long as you might think. People often operate under the assumption that they stay usable forever, hiding out until the one or two times a year you actually need that lemon pepper mix. But as Bon Appétit states, most spices only retain their flavor for three to six months. You can still use them, they won't make you sick, but they will be pale imitations of their former selves, only feigning in the direction of the flavors you really want. 

Bay leaves are not the most flavorful things in the world, even when they're freshly dried, but you might be making the problem worse by hanging on to ones that are far past their prime.

Check bay leaves scent to see how fresh they are

Remembering how old your spices and herbs are and keeping them fresh can be a challenge, but there is an easy way to tell if they are still worth using: smell them. According to Food & Wine, you can tell if your bay leaves are fresh by simply snapping one in half and giving it a sniff. It should have a clearly detectable, and enjoyable, floral smell. If you barely smell anything that means your bay leaf has passed beyond its usefulness and it's time to stock up with a new bottle.

If you're not quite sure what bay leaves are adding to your recipe, Serious Eats notes that they have a scent and flavor reminiscent of eucalyptus. Fresh bay leaves can actually be overpoweringly flavored, but dried ones are more subtle. The notes it adds to your cooking become more subdued and complex the longer the bay leaves cook, which is why they work so well in soups and braises

Bay leaves aren't meant to be a standout in cooking though — like an aromatic base they are there to balance rich dishes and add complexity. That is why making sure your dried bay leaves are still good is important, otherwise their delicate flavor will be lost completely and you'll be doing nothing by tossing a dry leaf into your pot. So give one of the more misunderstood ingredients in cooking a chance and make sure they're still fresh before using them.