I’m by no means happier than after I’m at house on a leisurely weekend, maintaining a tally of the range whereas a giant pot of do-it-yourself inventory, soup or pasta sauce bubbles away for hours. And since loads of these long-simmering recipes name for bay leaves, I’ve dutifully dropped one or two of the leaves into pots for years with the religion that I used to be infusing the liquid with some elusive-yet-magical essence.
However after I sat all the way down to eat, I typically puzzled: Do I really style the bay leaf, or am I simply imagining that I do? Come to consider it, what do bay leaves even style like? Are they well worth the cash? And when a recipe requires a bay leaf, does that imply dried or contemporary? Can they be used interchangeably?
I noticed that whereas I favored the ritual of dropping these leaves into simmering pots of consolation meals and watching them dance on the floor, I wasn’t positive they have been really doing something.
On one hand, there are such a lot of recipes and kinds of cuisines that decision for this herb: Everybody from old-school Italian grandmas to fancy Michelin-starred cooks contemplate them important to their broths, stews and sauces. On the opposite, not since cilantro have I ever heard an herb spark extra controversy: It appeared like I used to be at all times listening to different house cooks complain that the brittle, dry leaves have been completely nugatory and devoid of taste. Some ponder whether, at $4 or $5 for a small handful of leaves, they’re a complete rip-off. However additionally they preserve utilizing them — both out of behavior, or simply to hedge their bets.
Since I had loads of questions and nil solutions, I did a little analysis. Then I turned to the professionals to see if they may persuade me that bay leaves actually do add taste to meals.
What are bay leaves, anyway?
There are just a few causes cooking with bay leaves may be legitimately complicated for house cooks. The very first thing to know is that there are two kinds of bay leaves generally accessible within the U.S.: Turkish (also referred to as Mediterranean) and California. They arrive from two totally different crops, and are every named for the elements of the world the place they originated.
Whereas it’s attainable to search out each sorts on the market in dried and contemporary kinds, the overwhelming majority of what you’ll come throughout is the Turkish selection. That’s what you’re prone to discover dried within the spice aisles of supermarkets throughout America. It’s possible you’ll spot them contemporary within the produce sections of high-end grocers too. The leaves come from the bay laurel tree or shrub (Laurus nobilis), which predates the traditional Greeks and Romans.
Connoisseur markets and spice retailers can also promote the dried California selection (Umbellularia californica, which was used medicinally by Native Individuals) as a second choice, however they need to be clearly labeled as such. In lots of elements of California, the plant is ubiquitous: Recent leaves pop up at farmers markets (each for culinary use and woven into contemporary herb wreaths), and hardcore house cooks who don’t have them in their very own backyards forage them within the wild. (Should you’ve hiked round San Francisco, you’ve most likely observed their distinctive, pleasantly medicinal aroma perfuming the paths.)
So what’s the distinction? Turkish bay leaves are shorter and extra rounded, and sometimes have wavy edges. Their aroma and taste is delicate, with a pleasantly minty style and notes of heat baking spice. The California selection is usually lengthy and skinny, is pungently fragrant, and has an assertive, virtually eucalyptus-y taste. As a result of their taste and aroma is so assertive, they will simply overpower meals. California bay leaves could also be better-suited to cooks, severe house cooks and herb nerds, somewhat than the house cook dinner who’s simply seeking to construct out a flexible spice cupboard.
How are bay leaves used?
Herb professional Cal Orey, who devoted a whole chapter to the culinary herb in her e book, “The Therapeutic Powers of Herbs and Spices,” explains: “When a recipe requires a bay leaf, I feel it’s protected to imagine that they imply the dried Turkish kind. They’re what’s accessible in grocery shops and are essentially the most generally used, so except a recipe particularly requires one thing else, go along with these.”
As for whether or not the several types of leaves can be utilized interchangeably, Orey identified one other probably complicated side of cooking with this herb. Whereas the final rule with most herbs is that the dried variations are roughly double the efficiency of contemporary, the other is definitely true with bay leaves. The contemporary ones are a lot stronger than dried, so they need to be used extra sparingly — particularly the extra assertive California selection. The final guideline is that if you wish to swap in contemporary leaves for dried, scale back the quantity by half.
However irrespective of which kind you’re utilizing, cook dinner with the entire leaves, after which discard them earlier than serving. Sure, you can too purchase floor bay leaves, however they’re hardly ever referred to as for in recipes. Slowly coaxing the flavour out of entire leaves after which tossing them is certainly the best way to go.
An argument for dried bay leaves
Orey, who’s from California, has at all times been an advocate of cooking with bay leaves. She’s liked them ever since she was a baby, when she remembers the distinctive minty-spicy-savory aroma of the herb scenting the air of her childhood kitchens. Given the place she lives, she’s at all times had year-round entry to each styles of bay leaves, in contemporary and dried kinds. However due to what she calls the “paradox” of the herb — that the flavour of the contemporary leaves is a lot stronger than the dried — her go-to is at all times the dried Turkish selection. Whereas some folks could complain that the flavour of the dehydrated leaves is delicate, for her, that’s a great factor. She argues that the flavour of the contemporary leaves is simply too potent for many recipes. However the delicate, nuanced style of the dried kind provides simply the fitting stage of herbaceousness to taste dishes in a balanced method, whereas nonetheless permitting the opposite substances to come back by way of.
Orey makes use of the dried herbs in soups and stews, in saucy predominant dishes like rooster cacciatore, and even so as to add a heat savory observe to desserts like rice pudding. She additionally finds their taste the right match for fish and shellfish.
She additionally prefers dried bay leaves for his or her accessibility and comfort. “Most individuals throughout the nation don’t have entry to the contemporary leaves, which is one purpose why nearly all of recipes are written for the dried selection,” she stated. “Not solely are the dried leaves simpler to search out in grocery shops, however individuals who assume they’re dear ought to know that their shelf life is definitely fairly lengthy. They final for a pair years. So it’s undoubtedly well worth the cash to make use of the dried model — I’m by no means with no jar of them in my pantry.”
An argument for contemporary bay leaves
James Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton has additionally long-used the dried herb in her cooking. She and her husband and co-chef, Greg Denton, personal two acclaimed eating places in Portland, Oregon: the basic French Bistro Agnes, and Ox, which takes its inspiration from Argentinian wood-fired cooking. The Dentons use dried bay leaves at each eating places ― in a Madeira discount that’s served with rooster liver mousse, and in addition in coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, bean ragoûts and salmon gravlax.
However it wasn’t till just a few years in the past, when the chef planted a 2-foot-tall Mediterranean bay laurel in her yard, that she actually fell in love with utilizing contemporary bay leaves, which she says have a a lot brighter taste than the dehydrated kind. “Of their dried type, Greg and I really feel that bay leaves function extra of a again observe in most of our recipes, to the purpose the place — in the event that they have been omitted — most individuals wouldn’t discover that one thing was lacking,” she defined. “I’ve by no means been too excited by their presence. So if we actually need the flavour to play a extra vibrant position in a dish, then we’ll use contemporary bay.”
At house, she grabs some leaves from her plant to infuse in béchamel and velouté sauces, which function the bottom for mac and cheese or because the filling for pot pies. “However my absolute favourite is in a easy dish that my grandmother used to make for our household within the Andean highlands of Quito, Ecuador: a boiled artichoke with a facet of heat, bay-flavored béchamel sauce for dipping — spiked with a swirl of do-it-yourself ají,” she stated.
Throughout the chef’s off-hours at house, she additionally makes an natural tea by simmering contemporary bay leaves with a cinnamon stick (completed with a splash of oat milk and a bit honey), and a conventional Cape Verdean rice-and-beans dish referred to as jagacida she discovered again in school from her roommate’s dad. For these dishes and dozens of others, she stated, “It’s completely price searching for out the contemporary leaves for the colourful taste they add to a dish.”
Purchasing for and storing bay leaves
Recent leaves must be a aromatic, vibrant inexperienced, freed from blemishes and cracks, and must be versatile sufficient to bend or fold with out breaking. Retailer them within the fridge to lengthen their usability, and toss them once they begin to lose their colour or turn into brittle. (In fact if you happen to ever end up with an extra of the contemporary selection, you may at all times set the leaves out to dry whereas they’re nonetheless good so you may keep away from shopping for extra once you want them.)
These little jars from the grocery store ought to final for a few years. So why is the most important criticism about dried bay leaves that they don’t add any taste to meals? Most likely as a result of lots of people don’t understand what number of methods they will use them, in order that they allow them to languish for years and years behind their spice cupboards. Or, they’re storing them in a scorching spot of their kitchens, which is able to quickly diminish their taste. Orey says you may test the expiration date to keep away from past-their-prime leaves, however the extra foolproof method is simply to make use of your nostril. Should you don’t odor that advanced aroma hit you once you open the jar, it’s time to toss it.
After speaking to Orey and Denton, I got here away from my bay leaf deep dive a real believer that the herb does certainly add nuanced taste to numerous dishes (so long as the dried leaves haven’t misplaced their important oils whereas forgotten behind the spice cupboard). As Orey recommends, I’ll assume that when a recipe requires bay, it means dried (and if all I’ve is contemporary, I’ll use half the quantity). On Denton’s recommendation, I’ll attain for dried leaves after I need extra of a delicate background of bay and for contemporary leaves in dishes the place I need their extra assertive taste to take heart stage. I additionally planted a small bay laurel in my very own herb backyard, so I’ll at all times have each the dried kind in my pantry and contemporary simply exterior my kitchen door. Who is aware of, perhaps I’ll even make myself a crown.