A Guide To Bay Leaves
Discover all you need to know about one of the most misunderstood herbs.
What are bay leaves?
Are you one of the haters out there that thinks bay leaves are pointless? Some like to argue that they don’t taste of anything and don’t actually have a purpose in any recipe. But this blog will tell you why bay leaves are one of the most misunderstood herbs. Not worthless, but wonderful, they really do make a difference to your cooking. But before we get into all the reasons why, let’s start with what a bay leaf actually is. The bay leaf, also called the bay laurel, sweet bay and roman laurel, comes from the Laurus nobilis, or bay tree – a popular evergreen shrub that’s loved as much for the aromatic flavour the leaves add to recipes, as for its appearance in the garden. Technically, the bay leaf is a herb, but it acts like a spice in the kitchen. A real team player, it can be used in a variety of dishes to draw out the flavour of other ingredients.
Where do bay leaves come from?
Bay leaves have been used in cooking for centuries, which is why you have to bay-leaf us when we say they’re a wonderful addition to recipes around the world. The bay tree originated from Asia, but spread to the Mediterranean and other countries with hot climates, where the bay laurel tree thrives. In ancient Greece, wreaths of laurel, or bay leaves were used to crown the winners of the Pythian games, similar to the original Olympic games. It was one of the first herbs to be commercially traded and quickly became a staple in several regional cuisines.
Did you know? In ancient Greek and Roman times emperors wore crowns made with laurel or bay leaves, as symbols of power and honour.
Are there different types of bay leaves?
There are two main types of bay leaf: Turkish (or Mediterranean bay leaf) and Californian. The Californian bay leaf is, of course, native to California, but the Turkish variety is the most common. It has a more subtle flavour compared to California bay leaves, which are stronger, with a somewhat minty taste that can easily overpower a dish if you’re not careful. If a recipe calls for bay leaves you can assume they mean Turkish bay leaves.
What do bay leaves taste like?
Dried bay leaves have a delicate, warm aroma similar to oregano and thyme, whereas fresh bay leaves have a notably bitter and sharp taste, and pungent aroma. That’s why bay leaves are one of the few herbs that are generally preferred dried, rather than fresh. If you really want to know what a bay leaf tastes like, put some in some hot water and let it simmer. After five minutes, give it a taste and you should get hints of menthol and eucalyptus as the chemical eugenol is released (one of the major aromatic compounds in a bay leaf). It should also taste quite sharp and bitter. Leave it for longer, about an hour, and you’ll notice the flavour and aroma changes. The heat breaks down the minty flavour, making it more mellow. Creating more of a tea-like aroma. That’s why bay leaves are commonly infused into water, broths or stocks to unlock their pleasant smell, while lending an earthy richness to soups, stews, and sauces. So on their own they may not taste great, but they play an important supporting role in recipes. When used correctly, bay leaves can help amplify a dish, drawing out the flavours of the other ingredients, or deepen existing flavours, giving your plate balance.
Did you know? There are myths that bay leaves are poisonous and that’s why you remove them before serving. But of course this isn’t true. Bay leaves are sharp and swallowing one could hurt your throat or even cause you to choke. And no host wants that to happen when they’re throwing a dinner party.
Fresh versus dry bay leaves: what’s the difference?
When freshly picked, bay leaves are deep green, shiny and glossy on top. Fresh bay leaves have a notably bitter taste and strong aroma. As the leaves dry, the colour fades but the flavour intensifies. The longer the bay leaves simmer, the harsher, menthol notes tone down, replaced by the sweet aroma of herbal tea. When buying dried bay leaves, you want ones that are free of cracks and tears.
What cuisine can bay leaves be used in?
Bay leaves are used extensively in the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and Europe. They’re also frequently used in French cooking, particularly in the well-known bouquet garni (French for garnished bouquet), a classic herb mixture used to flavour soups, stocks and casseroles. Americans appreciate the bay leaf too, especially in chilli and gumbo (a heavily seasoned, savoury stew and the official state cuisine of Louisiana).
Where to buy bay leaves
Fresh and dry bay leaves are widely available in supermarkets and you’ll also be able to pick them up at your local farmer’s markets.
How to use bay leaves
Bay leaves are most typically used in slow, simmering dishes like stews and sauces to bring out their flavour. Add whole bay leaves to slow-cooked meat and vegetable dishes like shepherd’s pie, bolognese, lasagne and risotto (just remember to remove them before serving). Pop a few leaves in your gravy stock as you bring to the boil. They’re a wonderful addition to rice, bringing a great aroma that enhances the flavour. In Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, bay leaves are often used in marinades for meat and fish. The next time you cook a roast, stuff some bay leaves in the cavity of the chicken, duck or other meat, along with a lemon and onion to really bring out the flavour. Bay leaves also love the rich fattiness of cream and milk. So when you’re cooking that roast chicken, add them to your bread sauce, or béchamel if you’re cooking lasagne, moussaka or fish pie. They add a lovely deep note to sweet dishes too, like crumble, rice pudding and crème brûlée. Bay leaves don’t just have a place in food, they’re a great addition to gin and tonic, and cocktails too.
How to store bay leaves
Fresh bay leaves will last for a few weeks in the fridge. Just pop them in a sealable bag. Dried bay leaves should be kept in an airtight container, in a cool, dry place. Stored this way, they can last for up to two years before losing their aroma. To extend their shelf life further, freeze them instead. This helps retain the bay leaves aroma and flavour even longer than keeping them in your spice rack.
How to grow bay leaves
You’ll always have bay leaves to hand if you grow them in your garden. The best time to grow a bay tree is early spring. You need fertile, well-drained soil and plenty of room as an outdoor plant will grow into a full-size tree. Bay leaf trees love full sun, but make sure it’s also in a sheltered spot to protect it from strong wind because bay trees have weak wood. Bay in pots can suffer in cold wet weather, so move to a light, frost-free place in your garden.
Substitutes for bay leaves
Thyme is a good substitute for bay leaves as both have a minty flavour. Start with at least ¼ teaspoon of dried thyme and add more if you don’t think the flavour is quite strong enough. Oregano is a great alternative if you’re cooking chicken, lamb or beef, enhancing the meat’s flavour with its slightly bitter, sweet and spicy notes. If you’re cooking Italian cuisine, like bolognese or lasagne, you can substitute your bay leaves for basil to give your dish a slightly sweeter flavour. Roasting duck? Try replacing your bay leaves with juniper berries. The spice will give the duck a deliciously fruity flavour and when paired with rosemary, it will really elevate the flavour.
Do bay leaves have any health benefits?
Bay leaves have been used since ancient times to treat problems associated with the liver, stomach and kidneys and were also used to alleviate wasp and bee stings. And they’re still used by herbalists today to treat a number of illnesses and health complaints. Rich in vitamin A, B6 and vitamin C, bay leaves can help support a healthy immune system. They also contain a compound called parthenolide, which is used to combat migraines, and eugenol, a compound with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can help relieve toothache. Research has shown that both the leaves and fruits of the bay tree can help fight breast cancer. If you suffer from type 2 diabetes, studies have shown that taking ground bay leaves can help lower your sugar levels and reduce cholesterol. They’re also traditionally used to relieve indigestion and can help with bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. The next time you have an upset stomach, try a cup of bay leaf tea, which can also help relieve blocked sinuses or a stuffy nose. Bay leaves are also said to be great for your hair, boosting growth and strengthening hair follicles. Bay leaf water is also used to help get rid of dandruff and treat head lice.