To use or not to use? The bay leaf question
The flavour you’ll notice if it’s there, and if it isn’t
Bay leaves do not typically incite drama. In fact, the dried kind are dull green and inspire no agreedupon description. Ask a home cook, and he or she might say a bay leaf is added for flavour, or as an aromatic. Others say, sure, they toss a bay leaf in when a recipe calls for it, but they can’t tell you why.
The leaves have been described as “earthy,” “floral,” “minty,” “like cinnamon spice,” “subtle” and “assertive.” How can that be?
In part, because there are bay leaves, and there are bay laurel leaves.
For the record, the latter do have something to offer, provided they aren’t years old. Spice company McCormick & Co. continues its research and development on the Laurus nobilis that was prized for its culinary and medicinal uses thousands of years before the company claimed it as one of its top 25 products. It tests them in mashed potatoes and chilies, glazes and simple syrups.
“Taste two plain tomato sauces side by side, one of them cooked with a bay leaf or two,” says Laurie Harrsen, McCormick’s director of consumer communications. “The difference it makes is amazing. It’s a ‘foundational’ flavour, a workhorse — not the star.”
There’s room in the kitchen to celebrate supporting players, surely. Still, the reviews are far from unanimous.
“I don’t use them. Never understood the magic,” says Kim O’Donnel. The Seattle food writer and former Washington Post blogger was taught in culinary school to use them in soups and sauces. A bay leaf is part of a classic bouquet garni. But it has been years since she was moved to do so.
“I didn’t notice any difference not having them in my food. I’d rather go with fresh thyme or oregano” for infusing, O’Donnel says. “Bay leaves have disappeared from my pantry.”
They may be receding from recommended use as well. Cookbook The bay leaf has been described as earthy, floral, minty, like cinnamon spice and subtle. editor Paula Jacobson says they show up less frequently in the recipes she has tested in recent years, although she always keeps a jar of dried bay leaves on hand. When she spots one in an ingredient list, she says, she immediately scans the directions for the “discard” directive and inserts one if it isn’t there.
Serious Eats culinary director J. Kenji Lopez-Alt appreciates bay leaf for its 50-plus flavour compounds and its “complex, tea-like aromas” after long cooking, he wrote in March in response to the site’s Food Lab query titled, What’s the Point of Bay Leaves? He emphasized that fresh and dried are not interchangeable flavour-wise. His advice: Stick with dried, and if you’re worried about forgetting to fish it out, use ground bay leaf instead.
The fresh bay leaves you find in cello-packs might have been grown in California, but they are bay laurel — not Umbellularia californica, which is sometimes called California bay and is not recommended for cooking.
Perhaps that’s why Julia Child was no fan of fresh bay leaves. As she noted in The Way to Cook (1989), “California bay has, to me, a disagreeably strong and oily flavour.”
One way to distinguish Umbelluaria californica from Laurus nobilis is the edges of their leaves; the former has a smooth edge, while the latter’s edge is wavy.
Then again, the flavour imparted by fresh bay leaves — the laurel kind — is most agreeable in the bay ice cream served seasonally at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. Because they are brittle and dull green, dried bay leaves are best judged for their efficacy not by appearance, but by aroma. Open a fresh jar, and their smell is pronounced; bay leaves you’ve kept for more than six months may have a muted aroma. So break one or two of the leaves into pieces; if they are not more aromatic than the leaves left in the jar, it’s time to restock your supply. Australian TV food personality and cookbook author Rebecca Sullivan offers these tips:
Dry fresh bay leaves for year-round use. They’ll keep in an airtight container or jar for a year or more.
Use dried bay leaves in all your stocks and broths. Two or three leaves will add dimension to the flavour.
Add a few dried leaves to your steamer basket when cooking vegetables or fish; they will impart a subtle aroma to the food.
Scatter the dried leaves around your pantry to keep moths at bay (pun intended).
Steep fresh leaves in a quart of tepid water overnight, then use it in your bath to ease muscle aches.
To aid digestion, add two or three dried leaves, a squeeze of lemon and a teaspoon of honey to a mug of just-boiled water. Drink after a meal.
One of herb expert Susan Belsinger’s favourite uses for bay leaf is as an infusion in chocolate pudding. It proves the validity of Harrsen’s test of one-with, one-without: The background note of bay adds complexity and seems to enrich the chocolate flavour. It’s a nice recipe either way, but better with the bay leaf. Belsinger prefers cooking with fresh rather than dry leaves, and keeps them in an unsealed zip-top bag in the refrigerator for months.
“Taste two plain tomato sauces side by side, one of them cooked with a bay leaf or two,” says Laurie Harrsen of McCormick and Co. “The difference it makes is amazing.” 20 oz (560 g) bread flour, plus more for dusting 6 1/2 oz (190 g) rye flour 1/2 oz...