Take it or leave it

Bay leaves

You're perusing the ingredient list of a recipe when you notice it calls for bay leaves. You obligingly fish a few dried and crumbling leaves out of the packet and plop them in the pot, hoping you remember to remove them before serving. But have you ever wondered if they were essential to the dish? Bay leaves are supposed to add an herbal flavor sometimes described as "earthy" or even "tea-like." Some cooks, however, feel that bay leaves don't have much offer to recipes and fewer new recipes employ bay leaves, says Bonnie Benwick of The Washington Post.

Food writer Kim O'Donnel subscribes to the latter camp, noting that she doesn't think bay leaves add anything to her dishes. "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. Advocates for bay leaves include Serious Eats culinary director J. Kenji López-Alt. He appreciates bay leaves for their numerous flavor compounds and "complex, tea-like aromas" that develop after long periods of cooking.

We should note that there are a couple types of bay leaves. Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), hailing from the the Mediterranean, are the bay leaves most cooks have and most recipes require. Like oregano, bay laurel is an herb that improves with drying so you will usually find it dried. California bay leaves (Umbelluaria californica) are more strongly flavored and are typically sold fresh. The two aren't interchangeable, and if your recipe doesn't state which type to use, it probably means you should use Laurus nobilis.

One reason people might not find that bay leaves contribute much to a dish is because they h ave languished in the cupboard and much of their flavor has dissipated. As with any herb, buying a quality product and replacing it frequently will lead to better results. Since bay leaves are not expensive, it just becomes a matter of remembering to buy them.

On which side of the debate do you fall? Do you think bay leaves are essential to recipes or do you feel they can be omitted without a second thought? It's safe to say that writers of these recipes think bay leaves have plenty to contribute:

Grilled peaches with brandy & bay leaves from Delicious Magazine (Aus) by Jamie Oliver
Olive-oil-braised red onions with bay leaves from Fine Cooking Magazine by Tamar Adler
Winter fruit salad with bay leaves from Diana Henry at The Sunday Telegraph
Roasted asparagus with bay leaves and crispy capers from indexed blog Leite's Culinaria by Rozanne Gold
Bay laurel panna cotta
from Bon Appétit Magazine

4 Comments

  • ellabee  on  10/2/2014 at 10:57 PM

    When I started growing more herbs, bay was one of the first candidates. It grows slowly (in a pot so that I can bring in for the winter), but is a little bigger each year because it puts on more leaves than I use. It takes next to no work beyond making sure the container doesn't get too dry. I'm so glad to have a leaf whenever it's needed. One recipe where it makes a big difference is bechamel base for a cheese or other savory souffle.

  • veronicafrance  on  10/3/2014 at 5:35 AM

    If I don't have any, I don't have a problem leaving them out. But since I have a 10-foot bay tree in the garden, I generally do have some :) I find they're most scented with just a few days' drying; the months-old dried leaves in most packets probably have little effect on flavour.

  • madamepince  on  10/3/2014 at 3:25 PM

    Never use 'em!

  • Rinshin  on  10/4/2014 at 11:03 AM

    I find this very interesting. I am not sure. I have been using bay leaves all along and I can tell you that Japanese cooks often use bay leaves too when cooking Western style foods and they swear by the aroma. It is often used with fish for marinating. I guess I need to do some comparisons.

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