Cooking

Everything You Need to Know About Bay Leaves

Debunking the misunderstood herb
Why We Cook with Bay Leaves
Photo: LeszekCzerwonka/Getty Images

Ah, bay leaves: the source of much debate. Do they add unparalleled flavor to food as pots bubble and boil, or are they just weird plants sent to ruin our lunch? Honestly, it’s somewhere in between. A stew without bay leaves will not taste like it’s missing something, yet there’s no denying that when a leaf or two is included, some kind of something happens.

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Typically added to slow-cooking dishes from massaman curry to duck confit, bay leaves emit a more palatable gradation of flavor the longer they simmer. While a bay leaf isn’t as powerful as a much-needed pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon, it is not as inconsequential as some adamantly believe.

Fresh vs. Dry

Although it may seem counterintuitive in herb language, dry bay leaves are the way to go. The majority of fresh bay leaves available in the United States are native to California, while most dried varieties are imported from Europe, mainly Turkey. Whether dried or fresh, Turkish bay leaves’ milder flavor can round out the flavor of a dish over time, whereas potent American bay leaves can quickly overpower a dish.

 

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Are They Edible?

Unlike tender herbs like parsley or cilantro, which taste delightful sprinkled on a dish at the last minute, gnawing on bay leaves isn’t recommended. Because bay leaves are related to mountain laurel and cherry laurel, they’re often mischaracterized as poisonous, but that’s not actually the case. However, even after simmering in liquid for hours, the brittle leaves won’t break down, and pointy shards of a broken bay leaf can cause choking or even slice areas of the digestive tract.

Don’t freak out; there are a few ways to avoid a trip to the emergency room during your dinner date. First, and simplest: Keep an eye on the bay leaves in your dish as it cooks and remove them before serving. Another option is to tie the leaves into a neat package, known in classic French cuisine as a bouquet garni. A packet of herbs tied together with twine or wrapped in cheesecloth is easy to locate and fish out after cooking, thus eliminating any chance of biting into a bay leaf. Finally, bay leaves can be ground into a nontoxic powder that doesn’t need to be removed from a dish.

 

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Bay Leaf Substitutes

With a scent falling somewhere in between eucalyptus oil and the air of a French-Italian fusion restaurant, there is no way to perfectly emulate the herbal flavor of bay leaves. While you can simply omit the addition of a bay leaf, the closest match to the herb is a mixture of dried thyme and oregano; a quarter teaspoon per leaf gets the job done.

How to Store Them

If you’ve decided to fully ignore what was just explained about the herb and use fresh bay leaves, they should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a week, like most other leafy produce. Dried bay leaves can be stored in a cool, dry place along with the rest of your spices and herbs. However, the best way to hold onto bay leaves’ potency in flavor is to store the leaves in the freezer, where they will stay fresh for years.

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