Bay leaves are a fragrant leaf with a mildly astringent, menthol-like flavour, which are commonly used to add flavour to cooking. They have a distinctive elongated shape, with pointed ends, and are usually sold whole, either fresh or dried, although they are also available ground into a powder.
True bay leaves, sometimes known as Turkish bay leaves, come from the bay laurel plant (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae), an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region, and much prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who wore laurel wreaths as a sign of power and success. The flavour of fresh bay laurel leaves is very mild, and they are usually dried for a stronger taste.
There are several similar plants that are also referred to as bay, with perhaps the most common being the California bay (Umbellularia californica, Lauraceae), whose leaves are similar in both size and flavour to the bay laurel. California bay has a far stronger flavour than its Mediterranean cousin, with an added touch of mint, and is more likely to be sold fresh. It is usually considered to be less desirable than true bay laurel, as it can have a tendency to overpower a dish, so if you do have some California bay, you might want to try using half a leaf to keep your flavours in balance.
Most of the plants that are commonly known as bay leaf belong to the laurel family, and bay leaf is sometimes referred to as laurel. This can cause some confusion, as not all plants from the laurel family are edible, and some, such as the mountain laurel and the cherry laurel, are actually poisonous. So while both names are commonly used, if you want a plant with edible leaves, look for bay rather than laurel.
Benefits of cooking with bay leaves
Bay leaves are quite mild, and so they are rarely the main flavour in a dish. Instead, they are used to add an additional, subtle layer of flavour, along with an appetising aroma, to enhance the other flavours in the dish. They are usually used in slow-cooking dishes to allow the flavour to build gradually.
The herbal, slightly menthol-like flavour of bay leaf makes it a popular choice for lightening heavy stews and casseroles, and cutting through bold, savoury flavours. Its mild flavour means that it can be used to add that little something extra in all kinds of dishes, enhancing the other ingredients rather than clashing with them.
Uses in cooking
Bay leaves are popular in various different cuisines around the world. They are typically simmered in slow-cooking liquids, including soups, stews, curries and sauces, releasing their unique flavour and scent as they cook. Bay leaves do not soften during cooking, so you should always remove them from the liquid afterwards, as they will be tough and unpleasant to eat, and may even present a choking hazard.
Because of their subtlety, bay leaves work in harmony with other herbs, and make a great addition to bouquet garnis and stuffings. They are also popularly used in pickling solutions and marinades, and can even be used to add a hint of peppery freshness to homemade rice pudding.
See what the addition of a simple leaf or two can do for your cooking with these beautifully seasoned dishes from Fine Dining Lovers.
Meatballs in a lemon and bay leaf sauce: a simple but elegant dish of hearty sausage meatballs in a zesty white wine and bay sauce. This recipe is quick and easy enough to enjoy on a weeknight, but sophisticated enough to serve to guests.
Posole: Mexican hominy and pork stew: bay leaves add a little light relief to this rich, meaty stew, with its bold flavours, spices, and fiery chilli heat. Serve with warm tortillas to keep out the cold on a crisp winter’s day.
Sweetcorn soup with chilli: another warm and comforting winter dish, this spicy Chinese-inspired soup is full of nourishing vegetables, and makes a great, vegetarian-friendly appetiser.
Chicken chilli: a hearty Mexican-inspired casserole that the whole family will love, this 30 minute dish is crammed with succulent chicken pieces and chunky vegetables, with just a touch of chilli.
Turnip stew with apples and bacon: expect more bold, soul-warming flavours from this nourishing winter dish, with salty pork and sweet apples in a rich, herby vegetable stew.
Bay leaves are usually sold dried, as this enhances their flavour and makes them less bitter. Dried bay leaves should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place, for up to a year.
If you have fresh bay leaves, you can refrigerate them for up to 3 weeks, but many people prefer to freeze them, as this can help to preserve their aromatic oils and subtle flavour. To freeze fresh bay leaves, simply wash and dry them thoroughly, and place them in an airtight container in the freezer.
Alternatives to laurel leaves
If your recipe calls for a bay leaf or two, but you’re all out, here are some handy alternatives that you can use in a pinch.
Dried thyme is another one of those herbs that adds a touch of subtle complexity to your cooking without overpowering it, and like bay, it has slightly minty undertones. Use ¼ tsp of thyme for every bay leaf in your recipe.
Another subtle flavour enhancer, dried oregano is also a great alternative to bay leaves. As with thyme, use ¼ tsp for every bay leaf in the recipe.
Basil is another option for replacing bay leaves, although it does have a slightly sweeter flavour, so is not suitable for every recipe. It works particularly well in Italian recipes or tomato-based dishes, and can be used in equal amounts to the bay called for in the recipe.
The astringent flavour of juniper berries can sometimes be used as a replacement for bay leaf. They are somewhat stronger in flavour, however, so be careful not to overdo it. Try substituting ½ tsp of juniper for every bay leaf in your recipe.
Leave it out
While bay leaves can add an extra layer of flavour to your cooking, they are rarely a key ingredient, so leaving them out is unlikely to ruin the dish. If you don’t have anything similar in your cupboards, sometimes the best option is to use nothing at all, rather than substituting something wildly different and upsetting the balance of flavours in your dish.
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