What's the Deal with... Bay Leaves
You know that thing? That thing that sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.
Photo credit: StockFood
The humble bay leaf was once quite prized; ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated the leaves of the Laurus nobilis tree, winding them into crowns for the victors of sporting events.
Bay leaves have seen somewhat of a drop in esteem since their heyday, however, and nowadays often lurk in the back of a spice cabinet, turning more pale by the year, and crumbling to the touch when you pull them out for a soup. That said, they absolutely are still essential to all sorts of cuisines.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to choose and store the classic Mediterranean ingredient. We called Shuli Madmone, half of the husband-and-wife duo behind California’s Whole Spice, who has been selling the stuff since he was a child in Israel. Here is Madmone’s bay leaf wisdom.
Where They’re Grown: Madmone says the two most popular types of bay leaves on the market are Turkish bay leaves and (to a much lesser extent) Californian bay leaves. They come from two different varietals of trees, Turkey’s Laurus nobilis (also called “sweet bay”) and Umbellularia californica, which grows primarily in California and Oregon.
What They Taste Like: The two types of bay leaves are very different, according to Madmone, who says he sells much more of the Turkish bay leaf, and that chefs prefer its flavor. Turkish leaves “add the right aroma and flavor to the dish. Usually if there is some sweetness in the dish, if it has carrots or raisins or even paprika,” the slightly bitter bay leaves add contrast. California bay leaves, on the other hand, “more aromatic, not as flavorful, and more floral.” Some even go so far as to call them “oily.” Madmone avoids using Californian bay leaves when cooking.
How to Choose Fresh or Dried: "Dried ones do a better job than the fresh ones," says Madmone. The only time fresh bay leaves can sometimes be superior is when only their aromatics are required—as in desserts such asa savory bay leaf mousse or a bright, citrusy sorbet.
How to Use Them: Bay leaves are happy bedfellows with all sorts of other ingredients, from polenta to pâté, lamb to turkey. You’ll often find them in classic Mediterranean cooking such as this millet-and-shrimp saganaki, but they’re also used to amp up the base of stews and soups.
How to Store Them Madmone tells us that dried bay leaves can be stored for a year or two, provided they’re away from the light and tightly sealed in glass jars. (He prefers glass to plastic or metal, which he says will add an off taste to the bay leaves.) As for fresh bay leaves, place them on a plain piece of paper and carefully put them into a plastic bag so they don’t touch the plastic, and leave the bag open in the fridge.
How to Know If They’re Still Good The aroma of a good bay leaf should “pop in your face,” says Madmone, so if there’s no aroma even when you break it, your bay leaf is no longer in good shape. Additionally, if the leaves seem preternaturally light green or brown, toss ‘em.
Bay Leaf Bonuses Bay leaves feature a natural element called “cineol,” which repels roaches, ants and other insects. And bay leaves sometimes make cameos among some homeopaths and in Native American medicine.