Store Cupboard Secrets: What’s The Point Of Bay Leaves?

Do Bay Leaves Actually Make A Difference To A Dish?

Lots of recipes, particularly stews, sauces, stocks and soups, include the addition of a bay leaf, and most of us will have a packet of dusty old dried bay leaves at the back of a kitchen cabinet somewhere. But, what’s the point of using bay leaves, and do they make a difference to a dish?

chef rupert cooper holding up a twig of bay leaves

What Are Bay Leaves?

Bay leaves are a Mediterranean herb that can be used fresh or dried, and that are most often used whole in a recipe. They are the foliage of the bay laurel tree (Laurus nobilis, also known as sweet bay and roman laurel), which thanks to its historic association with the ancient god Apollo led to victorious athletes being crowned with a laurel wreath, then later poets and those who have achieved great things (laureates). Bay trees are popular ornamental evergreen shrubs, so you may well have one in a pot on your patio. The leaves are quite hardy and waxy, so when used in cooking they remain stiff and don’t break up which is helpful because in most recipes that use them, you are asked to remove the bay leaf before serving.

What Do Bay Leaves Taste Like?

Bay leaves impart a subtle flavour similar to oregano or thyme when used in slow-cooked dishes. If it’s subtle, you may well ask “what’s the point?”, and plenty of people do. The point is that they add a supporting background flavour that amplifies and deepens a dish. They aren’t mission ciritical, so you can get away without adding them, but if you happen to have a bay tree stood on your patio or a sealed pack or jar of dried bay leaves in your cupboard that aren’t so old that you’ve moved house with six times, then you have nothing to lose (and something to gain) from chucking in one or two.

The leaves of the bay laurel tree contain more than 50 essential oils and aromatic compounds including eucalyptol, terpenes, and methyleugenol. When they’re fresh or only cooked for a short time they can have a noticeable eucalyptus and menthol flavour, but the longer they are cooked for the more those harsher notes tone down and the aroma and flavour softens and becomes fuller and more herbal and tea-like. The aromatic compounds in hardier or woody Mediterranean herbs (which have evolved to try to retain as much moisture as possible in the often arid conditions they grow in) are far less volatile, so they won’t evaporate as the leaves dry and therefore when dried they retain almost as much flavour as fresh – as long as they are stored correctly!

pickling liquor with bay leaves in it

Using Bay Leaves In Cooking

If you are cooking something slowly, such as a stew, casserole, a ragu or bolognaise, or similar, then adding a bay leaf or two and leaving it in for as long as possible will enhance the final dish. That’s why they appear in recipes. But if you don’t have any to hand, it’s not a total disaster. For most recipes, use one or maybe (at most) two leaves and keep them whole; the flavours will be released by the leaves and spread throughout the dish, and they are much easier to remove when left entire. There is no need to leave a whole leaf in your dish for serving – its job is done. If using fresh bay leaves then be sure to allow them to cook for long enough for the flavours to mellow. If using dried, they will store well for a couple of years if kept in a sealed container in a dark place; that often leads to them getting lost at the back of a kitchen cabinet for far longer than that though, so if you’re in any doubt about the age and origin of those dusty old bay leaves you’ve found, consider buying a new pack.

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