I sort of piloted this series back in April with my post on Herbes de Provence. Anyone who knows me well could tell you easily that I love well-seasoned food. I’ve learned a lot about spices, herbs, and the seasoning styles and techniques associated with them from having people in my life that are knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge (and also watching a lot of cooking shows and reading cookbooks just to read them) – so much so that I think I took it for granted a little bit and kind of thought most people had similar or complementary knowledge. But when I left the food industry and started spending more time with non-foodies I realized how completely and utterly wrong that was. I found myself in the minority when it came to talking about how to season one thing or the other and “tips and tricks” that were commonplace to me made me seem like a supernatural spice goddess to them.
That’s not really a mantle I could wear, even if I wanted to. My knowledge is cursory when compared to most real chefs, and I’m willing to bet that some of their knowledge is cursory when compared to my Dad’s. He’s not a chef but he loves to cook and he loves to eat – and in the words of our patron saint Julia Child “…one learns by doing.”
Thus, in order to advance both sides, I’ve decided to combine my thirst for knowledge with my knack for communication and bring you what I do know whilst learning more myself.
Welcome to the first official installment of At Kitchen Sink’s Spice Cabinet Deep Dive series.
Most people who cook frequently have a container of bay leaves nestled among more popular spices like garlic and onion. But why do we use them and where do they come from? I learned so much when I started looking into buying these little guys that it made me wonder how many other spices I was missing information on! I did more research on bay leaves specifically and had to quit when I was writing in the margins of my two pages of notes, and even texted my best friend that they are apparently good for everything except eating! She replied that the only thing she knew about them was that you aren’t supposed to eat them, which only compounded my interest in doing this series.
There are many, many varieties of laurel tree, most of which are ornamental and some of which are even poisonous, but the one I’ll be focusing on is Laurus Nobilis – the Sweet Bay Laurel.
Known now for their herbal, slightly floral, aroma and their penchant for bringing a roundness and balance to many otherwise well-seasoned dishes, this gorgeous evergreen was originally made famous by the Greeks. Who crowned their heroes with its glossy deep green leaves, symbolizing wisdom, peace, protection, and victory in battle.
Bay leaves can be used fresh or dried and opinions seem to differ as to which is best. I have a hunch that those who say dried is better are likely referring to the California Bay (Umbellularia californica), a relative often mistaken for the Sweet Bay, whose leaves – while edible – are notoriously bitter and strong by comparison until they are tempered by the drying process. In either case, they should be used only for flavor, as the texture is very tough and dry, so it does not break down easily. Because of this, in addition to being downright unpleasant to chew, they may pose a choking hazard. It would be prudent to remove them before serving, though in some cultures it is considered good luck to find one in your dish.
Leaves can be harvested all year round, and are traditionally dried under shade to preserve the oils responsible for their flavor. The best ones are the darkest green and usually among the oldest because they possess more oil; while newer, brighter growth, will be less potent as they are being fed in order to grow and thus contain more water. They’ll keep for about a year once picked and dried before the oils degrade. However, the best way to store them is not where you probably have them – but in your freezer, where they can last for years.
Used in many traditional dishes across a wide variety of cultures, you will recognize it best from Mediterranean, French, Mexican, and Spanish cuisine – but will find it also in India and the Philippines. They work well in everything from plain rice, seafood, and poultry, to vegetables and even sweet dishes like custards and creams.
In the United States you’ll be hard pressed to find a good stew, chili, bechamel (white sauce), or tomato sauce without them and they are a key ingredient in the French bouquet garni, along with thyme, sage, savory, celery, and basil. (Confession: I wrote “basily” and had a very good laugh about it just now) I also found another very traditional French recipe called court bouillon, which is a broth made from water, salt, white wine, onion, and celery, flavored with bouquet garni and black pepper – and now I really need an excuse to make some.
I know, enough already, right? I’m not done! Flavor is not the only thing bay leaves (and the dried berries of the sweet bay) are good for! Not even close!
In addition to being an excellent source of vitamins C and A which are important for the immune system, eye, and skin health. It’s also rich in other nutrients like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
One common use that I didn’t expect was as an insect repellent. One more often than not thinks of organic matter as something that would attract insects, but bay leaves are commonly scattered throughout cupboards and pantries to ward off moths, cockroaches, flies, silverfish, and even mice.
A tea can be made from the leaves to alleviate fever by increasing sweat production, also as a diuretic which is great for detoxification. Or you can put it in your hair and leave it for an hour or so to combat dandruff. Bay leaves are also known to soothe many symptoms for those with gastrointestinal issues like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers by releasing enzymes which help to facilitate digestion and nutrient intake.
The essential oil of Laurus Nobilis is used for a variety of things as well, most notably as an anti-inflammatory to mollify arthritis and muscle pain in addition to providing relief from bronchitis and flu symptoms. There have even been studies conducted as to its usefulness against cancer.
Lastly, like many other things, fresher is better. I can’t wait until my lil bay laurels get a bit bigger so I can start using them right off the tree. But if you want a little more perspective on the differences between fresh and dry, check out this article: Do Bay Leaves Even Do Anything? The author experimented by cooking three batches of plain white rice with three bay leaves at different stages of dryness and tasting to see if there was a difference at all. The article that inspired that one (which she links to) is also pretty interesting – but watch out! You might end up going down the bay leaf rabbit hole – though I’m certainly glad I did.
tl;dr: Bay leaves have an incredible variety of uses from seasoning, to soothing an upset tummy, to repelling common creepy crawlies. You should definitely keep some in your arsenal, but store them in the freezer to keep them fresh. Add some to any dish that has enough liquid for them to flavor, but don’t eat them directly because they’re unpleasant to chew and even tougher to swallow.