"Why Are Bay Leaves Always Whole? Can They Be Used Ground?"
"Recipes always call for using whole bay leaves when simmering soups and stews, then discarding them at the end. Why is this? Can bay leaves be ground or cooked down until they're edible? Is there any danger in not picking out the leaves before serving?"
We all know the feeling of eating a mouthful of soup, stew, or some other saucy dish, biting down on a flat, rigid thing, pulling it out of our mouths with our fingers, and beholding none other than the bay leaf that should have been discarded. Like fish bones and cinnamon sticks, the bay leaf is one of those things that, if not plucked from the dish before serving, ends up on the edge of the plate afterwards. Simply put, it's not easy to eat something so hard, stiff, and pointy. (And you can ignore those overly cautious folks who claim that whole bay leaves are actually poisonous. This is not true.)
So, because swallowing a bay leaf is liable to cause esophageal discomfort and/or injury, most recipes call for them to be used whole and then discarded. Why whole? Well, partly because trying to fish out hundreds of tiny little sharp flecks of bay leaf is difficult.
Another reason is that bay leaves have a strong flavor and can easily overwhelm a dish (read Kenji's post on whether it's worth using bay leaves to find out more about just how important they can be). The more ground up they are, the more the surface area of the leaf will be exposed, and the more flavor will be released into the food. Using a whole leaf (and also not too many of them) reduces the risk of your food tasting like Vick's VapoRub.
But that's not the end of the story, because bay leaves in fact can be crushed or ground into a powder (you can buy pre-ground bay online). They're sometimes used in spice mixes—sparingly, because their flavor is extra-strong when ground—and pickling spices.
You can also crush or grind bay leaves yourself, though getting them down to a very fine powder at home can be hard. I've used a spice grinder in the past—I used to work in a Tuscan restaurant where we would sometimes put chunks of pork liver on skewers, coat them in ground bay leaves, and then wrap the whole thing in caul fat before grilling them. Suffice it to say, it was an acquired taste.
And Kenji tells me he sometimes leaves the bay leaf in a soup he plans to purée, but only if he has his high-powered pro-blender available. Weaker blenders just aren't up to the task of pulverizing the leaves. When in doubt, remove the bay leaves, since most of us don't want hard, stiff, pointy things lodged in our throats.
Check out Kenji's interview with David Leite on the Splendid Table for more bay leaf talk!