Bay leaves are an optional ingredient, 'but things are definitely better with them'

Why bother adding bay leaves to a dish if you are only going to fish them out and throw them away? J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats, explains the bay leaf. He wrote "Ask the Food Lab: What's the Point of Bay Leaves?" He is the author of the upcoming book The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.

Bay leaves are (not?) optional

David Leite: What do we need to know about bay leaves? They're so often an optional ingredient.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
J. Kenji López-Alt (Photo: Peter Tannenbaum)

J. Kenji López-Alt: You would think that they're an optional ingredient. They do have a very subtle flavor compared to many other herbs and spices. Often when I was a young cook, I would throw a couple bay leaves into a stew because the recipe told me to. Then at the end, you'd fish them out, throw them away and you'd say, "I can't even taste these."

But then if you go and do some A/B testing -- make one stew with them and one stew without them -- you'll find that they do contribute a slight sweetness. They bring out the meaty flavors of beef and chicken. They even help if you're making a vegetable soup -- they add a savory quality to the whole thing.

They are an optional ingredient, but things are definitely better with them.

Be very careful: Fresh bay leaves are more powerful than dry bay leaves


DL
: There's Turkish bay leaf and there's California bay leaf. I know that you have very strong feelings about them. How do they compare?

JKLA: The California bay leaves tend to have a much stronger menthol flavor. They have a little bit more of that eucalyptus note. In general, they're a little more one-dimensional than the Turkish bay leaves.

The Turkish bay leaves are milder, more nuanced and a little bit sweeter in flavor. They don't really hit you over the head like California bay leaves do.

That's actually an important thing. If you're getting fresh bay leaves in the U.S., they are almost always California bay leaves. Maybe 10 years ago -- this was the first time I'd ever seen fresh bay leaves -- I was like, "Oh my God, this is awesome," because you know how dried parsley versus fresh parsley is just night and day. I was like, "This must be so much better than the dried bay leaves." I used some in a stew I was making. The stew was just overpowered by this menthol flavor, this eucalyptus flavor. That's because California bay leaves just have a stronger flavor, which some people like, but you have to be very careful.

DL: Are they the same species?

JKLA: They're not, actually. They're two different species of similar plants. They're shrubs, and you can tell the difference between them -- if they're labeled, you're lucky.

If they're fresh, they're California. The easiest way to tell the difference is the shape of the leaf. California bay leaves tend to be long and slender with a point, like a spearhead. Turkish bay leaves tend to be a little more oval shaped and they'll have either a tiny point at the tip, or they might be completely round. But they're sort of shorter, squatter and almost circular.

Fresh bay leaves
Fresh bay leaves (Photo: misswired / Flickr)

Most recipes call for Turkish bay leaves. If you only have California bay leaves, I would start by using a quarter to half the amount.

DL: Really, that little?

JKLA: Yes. They're much stronger, particularly if they're fresh. They are the kind of thing that once you get used to that flavor, it might be something that you're actually going for.

Try fresh bay leaves in a dessert for a Vicks VapoRub effect

JKLA: Some people like to use fresh California bay leaves in desserts. They go well with sweet flavors. Any type of dessert that you would have mint in would be pretty good with it because it has that Vicks VapoRub kind of effect.

Dried bay leaves aren't poisonous, they just have an unpleasant texture


DL
: If you had your choice, would you go with fresh or dried bay leaf?

JKLA: I would go with dried bay leaves. Bay leaves are one of those herbs, similar to oregano or rosemary, that grow in very dry, arid, sunny climates. Those herbs tend to do better than fresh, leafy herbs like parsley and basil at retaining their flavor after they are dried.

Their aromatic compounds are less volatile. It's because they grow in these hot climates that basically they have these molecules that are designed to stay in place even when the sun's shining down on them, even when water's evaporating. Because of that, when you dry them out, they tend to retain flavor a lot better. I generally go with dried bay leaves.

DL: With dried bay leaf, a lot of recipes will say to put it in and then fish it out at the end. Why are we fishing it out?

JKLA: Because dried bay leaves are so tough. They're just not something pleasant to eat. I know some people play games where the person who gets the bay leaf in their stew has to do all the dishes.

Basically it's just because they have an unpleasant texture. I know some people have heard or have been told that they're poisonous and they are going to kill you. That's not the case.

DL: I heard if you eat it, it could slice your throat.

JKLA: It's just a bad texture. It's like eating a fish bone. You don't really want to do that.

DL: I am very curious about ground bay leaf because I think ground bay leaf in a recipe can be really wonderful. I know that there are some recipes where you can put it on kabobs. In Portugal they do that. Do you use ground bay leaf?

JKLA: I don't often use it just because I try to keep my spice rack minimal because dried herbs and spices tend to lose their flavor pretty rapidly.

You can store dried bay leaves in the freezer


DL
: How often would you replace them?

JKLA: It varies from spice to spice and it depends on how you store them. But anywhere from 3 months to a year depending on what it is.

Ground bay leaf is not something I would use often enough to warrant buying a bottle of it. Whereas regular dried bay leaves I use all the time.

I buy my dried bay leaves in bulk and keep the jar in the freezer. I just use them straight from the freezer.

DL: How long do they last in the freezer?

JKLA: In the freezer, they'll last indefinitely.

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