August 13, 2015

All About Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are best used in any dish that allows for long simmering.

Bay leaves are best used in any dish that allows for long simmering.

Bay leaves are a versatile spice that add a distinct flavor and aroma to any dish. Once you learn how to recognize the nuances bay leaves bring to a dish, you’ll start noticing it in soups, stews and marinades. But how much do you know about these dried leaves? Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the bay leaf:

What is a bay leaf?
Bay leaves come from the bay tree, which is indigenous to Asia. The plant spread to the Mediterranean, where it was called a laurel tree. Laurels were associated with honor and glory, which led to the famed laurel wreathes, headpieces popularly associated with Ancient Greece and Rome. They’re also the root of honor-bearing titles such as “Poet Laureate.”

Most bay leaves used in a culinary setting are dried Turkish bay leaves. Turkish bay leaves have a subtle minty sweet flavor and distinct aroma, and can be used in a number of dishes. Students attending culinary schools in Texas might be interested in trying out fresh California bay leaves. If you do, be mindful: California bay leaves have a stronger flavor than Turkish bay leaves, and can easily overpower a dish.

How are bay leaves used? 
Bay leaves are best for any dish that’s going to simmer or stew for a long time. You can think of bay leaves as an ingredient you steep in your dish, since you need to remove them before you serve the food. There are myths that say bay leaves are poisonous, but that’s not true: The only reason you remove bay leaves before serving a dish is because they’re tough, and swallowing a dried bay leaf could hurt or even cause choking.

Can bay leaves be skipped?
It depends on who you ask, but the short answer is no. A lot of people are tempted to skip bay leaves because you take them out before serving. However, that’s ignoring the effect that the bay leaf has during cooking. J. Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eat’s managing culinary director, told The Splendid Table that early in his career, he frequently wondered about the usefulness of bay leaves, thinking they made no difference. However, his experimentation told him otherwise.

“If you go and do some A/B testing – make one stew with [bay leaves] and one stew without them – you’ll find that they do contribute a slight sweetness,” he said.

He also said they brought out the flavors of meat, and even brought an element of savoriness to vegetable soups.