Inquiring Minds: The Bay Leaf Enigma

Join me, friends, as I christen a new addition to Can Do Kitchen. Henceforth, I will be penning occasional informational posts, dubbed the Inquiring Minds feature, in which curious cooks put forth a question, and I provide an answer to the best of my ability, complete with resources and the occasional link.

In today’s inaugural post we reflect on bay leaves. An inquisitive CDK reader asks: “What is the purpose of bay leaves? Don’t really smell, can’t actually eat them, yet they’re in everything…” Here are my answers, as well as a few handy links.

Purpose. The principal question is: “What is the purpose of bay leaves?” This seems like a very existential quandary to me. What is any herb’s purpose? What is my purpose? (Heady stuff, readers, but I’ll try to keep it practical.) As you well know, we use herbs to add different flavor notes to any dish, and every herb, spice, and aromatic has its own particular flavor profile. If asked to describe how bay leaves augment cooking, I would characterize them as an element that rounds out the fundamental flavors of a dish and adds a savory backdrop. It’s not a very pungent or bright flavor like oregano or tarragon, but more like a base note. If used in large quantities, they can add an almost woodsy flavor, but generally they’re used in singles or doubles, and add a more subtle tone to a dish.

Now, before I get into the specific suggestions, I have to say that if your bay leaves really don’t smell, they might just be old. As herbs and spices age, exposure to light and air rob them of their volatile oils and other good stuff that gives our food its zing. If this is the case, the best place for your bay leaves is the bottom of your trash bin where they will help stave off odors and pests. Then go to the store and replace them. I have found the best quality bay leaves are usually found at Greek, Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern markets, presumably because they’re used frequently in those cuisines, so they don’t hang around on the shelves for years on end. Another great way to buy them is from any market that sells spices in bulk, so you can take as many or as few as you like. Buying in bulk is also incredibly cost effective. I buy in bulk and keep my bay leaves on my spice shelf in an old glass mustard jar. Some grocery stores even sell fresh bay leaves in the produce section near the other fresh herbs (e.g. basil, parsley, thyme, etc.). These fresh ones are much more flavorful than their dry counterparts and keep for a long time in the fridge. Eventually, if you don’t use them up, they’ll just dry out and you can still use them as per usual. It’s a wonderful thing.

If your bay leaves are not antiquated and still have some nice, green scent, then here are a few ways that they can be used:

  • I always throw a leaf or two into soups, stews, and curries. I think they complement poultry particularly well and would not dream of making chicken soup without them.
  • Tuck a few inside the body cavity of a chicken or turkey before you roast it. Some people just lay them on top of the bird.
  • My mom always put one in spaghetti sauce, and I follow her lead and do the same — just did last night, as a matter of fact.
  • Add to your boiling liquid (water, broth, whatever) when making grains like rice, quinoa, millet, or any sort of pilaf.
  • They add great flavor to anything with legumes like beans and lentils, and are often included in recipes for black-eyed peas.
  • Grind some up with other spices to use as a meat rub before grilling or roasting.
  • Crunch a few up into any savory marinades or brines.
  • I have a sensational colcannon recipe (mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage) that directs you to make an aromatic mix of milk warmed with some butter, chopped carrot and a bay leaf, and then mix the strained liquid with the vegetables before mashing. Your mashed potatoes will never be the same again.
  • Drop a couple into your next crab or shrimp boil.
  • Jamie Oliver smashes them up with salt to make “bay salt” and uses it for seasoning. I’ve never tried it, but I’m sure gonna now.
  • Make a laurel wreath to crown the winner of your next Backyard Olympiad.

Last but not least, I keep a bay leaf in some of my pantry staples because they ward off pantry moths and other pests that make me shudder. Some people just scatter them on pantry shelves and surfaces. I keep one in my breadcrumb container, with my cornmeal, in the box of matzo meal — whatever is perhaps not completely sealed or is prone to attracting buggers. It doesn’t impart any flavor, and you can just pluck it out when you use the stuff and toss it back in before closing it up again. I learned this trick from my friend who lived in a yurt and had limited refrigeration and pantry space. Works like a charm.

Rest assured, dear CDK reader, you are not alone in your pondering of the eternal bay leaf enigma. Even New York Times food columnist, and personal hero of mine, Mark Bittman inquires of his readers what the heck to do with this common but frequently underused kitchen staple. My favorite suggestion by far is to pierce them and sew in layers to form elven leaf armor.

As always, I encourage such inquiries from my readers, so please hit me with any other burning questions that I can use as fodder for the new Inquiring Minds feature! I love being a resource to eager cooks.

If you have other great suggestions for bay leaf usage, please leave a comment! Also, if anyone opts to craft some savory, insect-proof elf garb, I would appreciate photographic evidence. Carry on, then.

2 Comments

  1. Sara says:

    Audrey, great food for thought. I will love my bayleaves again.

  2. Tule says:

    Audrey, I realize a year has passed since this post. Sadly, a year has also passed since I saw you. I was thinking of you today and decided to stop by CDK. My mom and grandma always put bay leaves in the water when steaming artichokes. I had a small bay tree in a pot in my old garden and liked using the leaves fresh (can’t remember what recipes I used them for). Where I grew up, we had bay trees all around, but they are very different from Mediterranean bay; the smell is so strong when you break one in half that if you inhale too sharply it’s almost painful. I wouldn’t dare cook with those but still love breaking them open on hikes. Another use I found on a psychic forum just now: bay leaves enhance clairvoyance and were once used by the Oracle at Delphi to promote visions.

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