What Are Bay Leaves—And Do They Really Do Anything?
Bay leaves are mysterious little buggers. Everyone knows they belong in any seasoned cook’s spice cabinet—but why? Here’s what you need to know about the divisive ingredient:
What Are Bay Leaves and What Do They Taste Like?
A bay leaf is, well, a leaf. It comes from a laurel tree and is used whole, dried, or ground in cooking.
Bay leaves have a pungent taste and are quite stiff, no matter how long they’ve been cooked. However, bay leaves are generally not eaten whole.
They are identifiable from their signature herbal and slightly floral fragrance, which is similar to thyme and oregano.
What Do They Do?
A bay leaf’s purpose is to add flavor and to deepen existing flavor. However, there’s been some debate in recent years about whether the humble little leaf has been sleeping on the job.
In 2016, Kelly Conaboy sparked the discussion with a scathing article called “The Vast Bay Leaf Conspiracy.”
“What does a bay leaf taste like? Nothing,” she wrote. “What does a bay leaf smell like? Nothing. What does a bay leaf look like? A leaf. How does a bay leaf behave? It behaves as a leaf would, if you took a leaf from the tree outside of your apartment building and put it into your soup. People say, “Boil a bay leaf in some water and then taste the water if you want to know what a bay leaf tastes like. No.”
I’ve always been Team Bay Leaf, but I’ve never really considered why. The aromatic leaves just belong in certain soups, stews, and sauces. It’s a fact of life—or is it?
While I truly believe bay leaves do add a certain depth of flavor that’s not present sans bay leaf, my lackluster palate and propensity to fall victim to the power of suggestion make me the wrong person to contribute to this discussion.
That’s why I asked the experts.
“I feel like they're useless,” said Hayley Sugg, associate editor at AllRecipes. “I had a coworker at Cooking Light tell me you just have to use a LOT, so I made soup and put like 10 bay leaves in there. I could taste no difference.”
Kimberly Holland, senior editor at AllRecipes and author of Collagen Handbook: Recipes for Natural Living, agreed (albeit less enthusiastically): “I also think they’re useless, but I've also probably never used a bay leaf that was less than 3 years old because I use them so infrequently.”
Not everyone was anti-bay leaf, though.
“Your stew or sauce won’t be ruined if you don’t have them, but they add a lil’ somethin-somethin,” asserts Jaime Milan, digital editor at EatingWell.
I’m most inclined to agree, however, with this thoughtful bay leaf analysis from Darcy Lenz, MyRecipes’ senior editor: “I know there are a lot of people in the food world who have deemed them useless, but while they're not going to be the outstanding flavor highlight of your dish, I wouldn't cast them aside as useless either. Bay leaves don't hit you over the head with intense aromatic flavor presence, but if they're included in a slow simmering soup, stew, or braise, they do add a subtle flavor layer that's going to lend a little more depth to whatever you're cooking.
So no, it's not going to make or break your meal, but it can make it more nuanced. And when all that's involved is throwing a couple leaves in the pot, why not? (I do think that you also gotta keep in mind that if you're using the same tin of store brand bay leaves you've kept through the last four times you've moved, expectations for their flavor-boosting power need to be reasonably managed.)”
Here’s the thing: Bay leaf believers and naysayers probably aren’t going to come to a consensus anytime soon. But, if you can improve a recipe (even slightly) by tossing a couple leaves in it, why wouldn’t you?
Fresh Bay Leaves vs. Dried Bay Leaves
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Fresh bay leaves are going to give you more of a flavor boost, but they’ll only last about a week if you store them properly (in a sealed bag in the fridge).
Dried bay leaves, however, will stay good for several years if you keep them tightly sealed in a cool, dark place.
How to Use Them
Using bay leaves is incredibly easy. Seriously—just toss a few leaves into your next slow-cooked soup, stew, or pasta sauce. As the dish cooks, the leaves’ herby flavor will be slowly released.
Can You Eat Them?
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Yes, the bay leaves you can buy at the grocery store are perfectly edible.
Some laurel leaves are poisonous, however, and that’s likely contributed to the widely believed misconception that consuming them is dangerous.
If you’ve consumed a bay leaf (accidentally or on purpose), you can rest easy: The poisonous laurel leaves are never sold for culinary purposes.
Now, just because you can eat bay leaves doesn’t mean you should. They’re incredibly stiff and, unlike other edible leaves, they don’t get a whole lot softer as they cook.
Basically, they’re leaves and they taste like leaves. Do with that information what you will.
Bay Leaf Substitutes
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If your recipe calls for bay leaves, don’t fret if you don’t have any on hand. Just substitute a teaspoon of thyme or a teaspoon of oregano per leaf. This should take care of the herbal, floral flavor you’re missing.