Can You Eat Bay Leaves?

Bay leaves are commonly used in recipes, but are they edible?

<p>Jen Causey; Prop Stylist: Josh Hoggle; Food Stylist: Ruth Blackburn</p>

Jen Causey; Prop Stylist: Josh Hoggle; Food Stylist: Ruth Blackburn

Bay leaves, which come from laurel trees, are a staple in many home cooks' spice cupboards and a common ingredient for recipes like soups and gumbo.

But despite how widely available and frequently used they are in cooking, bay leaves are not always well understood. So we're here to clarify the common questions: Can you eat bay leaves, and what’s the point of cooking with them, anyway?

Safety of Consuming Bay Leaves

The bay leaves sold as spices are completely edible and safe to eat. (Some varieties of laurel leaves are poisonous—and this can lead to misconceptions—but these poisonous varieties are not sold in stores for cooking.)

That said, while bay leaves are technically edible, you won't want to eat them. They are stiff and remain so even through the cooking process. Bay leaves are hard to chew and not pleasant to consume. Eating them could scratch the mouth or esophagus, and this could be uncomfortable (or worse).

"Bay leaves are edible. However, be cautious since you can choke," says James Beard-nominated chef Timon Balloo of Fort Lauderdale's The Katherine restaurant.

Culinary Uses of Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are classically found in stocks, soups, braises, and stews. They also enhance flavor in pickling brines and cures. And they're used in many traditional Southern dishes such as Louisiana gumbo. (Typically, they’re used in savory dishes, but they’re sometimes used in dairy-driven desserts such as ice creams and custards, in which they impart an herbal flavor.)

"We often use them as a flavoring agent to add a deeper richer flavor to stocks, braises, and stews," Balloo notes. "Fresh bay leaves are magical if you can source them."

Indeed, sometimes they can be found fresh. But they are more often available dried, whole, in the grocery store's spice aisle.

Most commonly, bay leaves are added whole to a dish (usually just two or three at a time), allowed to simmer—the flavor develops over time—and then removed before serving.

<p>Getty Images/BURCU ATALAY TANKUT</p>


Alternatives to Bay Leaves

Don't have bay leaves or don’t want the hassle of cooking with them? Feasible bay leaf substitutions include dried oregano or thyme. Seasoning or rubbing with bay leaf powder is another practical alternative to cooking with whole bay leaves and removing them before serving. Of course, you could simply omit bay leaves from a recipe and leave it at that.

For what it's worth, Southern Living is on Team Bay Leaf. The flavor they impart can be subtle, but it's perceptible, and it does make a difference: Bay leaves add a depth of flavor to an otherwise simple stock or soup, they can lighten up a heavy dish, and they add a pleasant aroma.

Just don’t overdo it: Too much bay leaf flavor can be overpowering and bitter, even medicinal.

Related: Does A Bay Leaf Really Make a Difference?

Is It Safe To Eat Bay Leaves?

Bay leaves sold at grocery stores are safe for cooking and technically edible. However, they are stiff and bitter and not meant to be eaten. Typically, they are added to a dish, allowed to simmer, and then removed before serving.

Most commonly, bay leaves are used in stocks, soups, and stews. Alternatives to cooking with whole bay leaves include using powdered bay leaves, substituting with oregano or thyme, or simply omitting bay leaves from the recipe altogether.

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Read the original article on Southern Living.