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Ask the Food Lab: What's the Point of Bay Leaves?

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"What's the Point of Bay Leaves?"

Lots of stews, stocks, and soups call for bay leaves, but I don't really taste them in the final dish. Would it make a difference if I left them out?

Here's an easy way to see what bay leaves really taste like: throw a couple in a pot of water and let it simmer. Taste it after five minutes and you'll probably get a good hit of menthol and eucalyptus (think: Vick's VapoRub). That's the chemical eugenol you're smelling, and it's the biggest constituent in the bay leaf's flavor arsenal of more than 50 compounds.

Let them simmer for longer as they would in a stew—say, an hour or so—and you'll notice that the flavor and aroma will change. The harsh nose-clearing menthol will taper down, while more complex tea-like aromas will start to come forward. Those are the flavors you're looking to add to your soups, stews, and sauces.

It's understandable why you may think they're optional. Bay leaf, by its very nature, plays second fiddle to other, more prominent flavors. But just as a grind of black pepper, some sautéed anchovies, or a softened leek might not be instantly recognizable in a stew, they add a layer of subtle background music for the stars of your dish to play over.

Dry or Fresh?

Many herbs are close to useless in their dried state. Those little jars of parsley, basil, or cilantro? Leave them on the shelf. Tender, leafy herbs have highly volatile flavor compounds that dissipate rapidly. All you gain by using them in their dried form is a dusty texture.

But other herbs seem to do just fine when dried. Oregano, rosemary, marjoram, and, yes, bay leaves. It has to do with their growing climate. Hot weather herbs that grow in arid climates tend to have aromatic compounds that are far less volatile (it makes sense, as these are leaves designed to try and retain as much moisture as possible), which means that even after drying, they retain a decent amount of flavor. Freshly dried herbs will remain flavorful for up to a couple of months if they're stored in a cool, dry place.

Want to keep your bay leaves flavorful even longer? Store them in the freezer and they'll last for years. This is great to know if you're looking to save some money and buy in bulk.

20111229-185336-bay-leaf-post.jpg

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

There's another very important consideration when choosing fresh versus dried bay leaves.

I'm in the habit adding a bay leaf to my béchamel sauce and once made the mistake of throwing a fresh bay leaf in there. I figured, fresher is better, right? I ended up with a sauce that tasted like I'd tipped a bottle of cold medicine into it. What gives?

Turns out that in this country, dried bay leaves are imported (generally from Turkey) and fresh bay leaves come from California, almost universally. And in fact, the two types of bay leaves are not even directly related. Fresh California bay leaves come from a tree that has a decidedly more potent eucalyptus flavor that can easily dominate a dish if you're not careful, while Turkish bay is much milder and more nuanced. In fact, bay leaves are the one case where I'd advocate against ever using fresh, unless you know what you're getting into.*

Edit: *or unless you know that you're getting real mediterranean bay laurel, not California bay.

Long story short? Yes, you should use bay leaves. No, fresh bay leaves cannot be substituted for dry. Yes, you should store them in the freezer, and finally, yes, I can tell you my favorite bay leaf-forward recipe: it's this Jerk Chicken, where the chicken gets cooked on a full-on bed of smoking bay leaves.

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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