To use or not to use? The bay leaf ques­tion

The flavour you’ll no­tice if it’s there, and if it isn’t

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - BON­NIE S. BEN­WICK

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.

Julie Van Rosendaal

“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...

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