Ever wondered what bay leaf really tastes like? Why stock, soup, and sauce recipes everywhere call for its inclusion? It's hardly a vibrant flavor, and in the presence of stronger ingredients it becomes a wallflower. Compared to herbs like basil and cilantro, it's downright dull.
Bay may not be the flashiest flavor in the cook's toolbox, but it's more potent than you may think. The trick is to think of it like a spice, not an herb. A spice with a bit of mint, a bit of thyme, some oregano, and aspects of coriander and clove. Just like allspice sings backup to cinnamon and nutmeg, bay brings the best out of warm spices and meaty flavors.
What Are Bay Leaves?
Bay leaves hail from the Mediterranean in and around Turkey. They're members of the laurel family, the leaves used to make wreaths for Olympic champions in the days before gold medals. Why laurel leaves? So one story goes, after the Greek god Apollo attempted to rape the nymph Daphne, the Earth spirit Gaea hid her by transforming her into a laurel tree. Apollo in turn made the tree sacred, so it became a powerful symbol of honor, not just as a crown for athletes, but as a spiritual medium/hallucinogen for the oracle of Delphi and as a nod of respect to the arts (the etymological similarity between laurel and laureate isn't coincidental—Apollo was also the god of poetics).
In the Middle Ages bay leaves were popular insecticides and medicine, their lauric acid a good fix for keeping moths and feisty humors at bay. Their rich, gentle, savory flavors paired easily with popular roast meats and the phylogeny of stocks and sauces rapidly developing in Medieval and Renaissance kitchens. We haven't changed much about how we use bay since then.
How To Use Them
Bay leaves are occasionally available fresh, and if you can find them are worth buying and freezing for later use. But in all likelihood dried will be all that's available, which is just fine, as dried bay has a shelf life more akin to whole nutmeg than other dried herbs.
That said, for the love of Apollo, replace your stock every year or so. Yes, that last bag of bay leaves is still half-full and they smell okay, but rest assured, you're playing a game of fast-diminishing marginal returns. Bay leaves are cheap, so suck it up and replace them. Take old, brittle leaves and line your dresser drawers with them. Keep fresher stuff in the pantry and it'll make a difference. When people say bay doesn't taste like anything that's because they're using leaves older than their kids.
The American market sells bay leaves primarily from Turkey and California. Turkish bay isn't as potent as its Californian cousin, but its perfume is more subtle and nuanced. Soups and sauces are standards for bay, as is the cavity of a roast chicken with some lemon and onion, or in a marinade for Greek and Middle Eastern kebabs. The leaves enrich pots of hearty beans and go especially well with lentils and cloves (bay is high in eugenol, which makes cloves taste like cloves).
New Uses for Bay Leaves
Some of my recent favorite uses for bay come from foreign cuisines and high end restaurant kitchens. Bay leaf is a standard in the Indian spice mix garam masala, rich in black pepper, clove, and other warming spices. It also finds its way into plenty of Filipino recipes for adobo, an addictive vinegary braise of chicken, pork, or fish.
Innovative restaurants have brought bay leaves to sweet dishes, especially custards like ice cream and crème brûlée. These dishes enhance the sweet perfume qualities of bay and bring out its spicier attributes, its notes of clove and allspice. They also offer the opportunity to taste bay denuded of competing flavors, an experience as educational as it is tasty.
Above all else, bay leaves should be treated like a spice. Spices play well in teams more often and more harmoniously than herbs, and bay is nothing if not a team player. Pair them with other whole spices and cook them for a while in moist environments. Like a tiny dash of cumin in split pea soup, bay makes a dish way more complex, interesting, and satisfying. Think of bay leaves as the drummer in a spice band. Hardly the most glamorous, but a sure ticket to the wild flavor party.