What does bay leaf do for our cooking, anyway?

When you make soup, or stew, or any number of sauces at home, you add a bay leaf or two, right? Ever wonder why you do that – I mean, really give it some thought? I’ll be honest – I hadn’t, so I guess it’s time to ask – What does bay leaf do for our cooking, anyway?

Full disclosure, a social media acquaintance sent me a link to a new-agey treatise on bay leaf. This thing claimed that, ‘recent scientific studies have proven’ that bay leaf converted triglycerides to monounsaturated fats, eliminates heartburn, acidity, and constipation, regulates bowel movements and blood sugar, makes the human body produce insulin, eliminates bad cholesterol, protects the heart from seizures and strokes, relieves insomnia, anxiety, kidney stones and cures infections – No freakin’ wonder we put them in soup!

Most if not all of those claims are, at best, gross exaggeration and distortion of facts. The real dead giveaway was this line – ‘Do you know that if you boil some bay leaves in a glass of water and taste it, it will have no flavor?’

My answer to that is, ‘do you know that that statement is complete bullshit?’ Either the author has never actually done the experiment, or did so with bad bay leaves. Had they done it properly, they’d have discovered a much more potent and nuanced result.

Sweet bay laurel tree

Before we dive into that, let’s define what exactly the bay leaf in our pantry is – it’s Sweet Bay, AKA Bay Laurel, or Lauris nobilis. It’s native to the Mediterranean, and cultivated commercially all around that region, as well as France, Spain, Mexico, and Portugal. Now for the record, the other bay we see in a lot of pantries is California Bay, and that’s a whole different beast, Umbullularia californica – it’s far more potent than sweet bay, with longer, narrower leaves.

Dried Sweet Bay leaves
Dried Sweet Bay leaves
Dried California Bay leaves
Dried California Bay leaves

Problem is, a lot of purveyors just call their stuff ‘Bay Leaf,’ and that can make things tough on us home cooks. Different growing areas produce leaves with subtle differences you may like or not – In any event, it’d be nice to know from whence yours came, wouldn’t it? Good outfits like World Spice and Penzey’s will tell you that information. 

It’s good to keep both the sweet and California versions on hand, by the way. Because they both do have a place in our cooking. While California bay is intense and medicinal, the sweet, (often called Turkish), is lighter, more nuanced and savory. The latter is far and away my personal go to, for the record. California bay is nice, in moderation, in low and slow soups and stews where time and temperature can simmer out the lion’s share of the more volatile constituents that spring forth early on in the cooking process. In any event, you’d be well advised to find out what variety you have, and like best.

Sweet Bay is complex, with dozens of volatile compounds onboard each leaf. The heavy hitters are cineole, pinine, linalool, and methyl eugenol. Interestingly enough, most of those compounds are also found in basil. California Bay is a bit different, packing cineole, pinine, and sabinine – that last one is responsible for things like the spiciness of black pepper, nutmeg, and carrot oil. Cineole, linalool, and pinine are terpenes, a rather volatile chemical family that has much to do with a wide variety of powerful scents in the natural world. Their highly reactive nature makes them some of the first things we smell when bay leaves are used in cooking. Methyl eugenol is a phenolic found in over 450 plants, and plays a vital role in pollination – how about that in your spaghetti sauce? These compounds are fascinating, especially when we think about how they’ve made that journey from chemical warning sign, or pollination attractor, to our dining table.

On to that experiment then, since that’s the best way to ascertain that what you’ve got in your pantry is packin’. Set a small pan of water to boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Toss in a couple bay leaves of your choice, let them do their thing for 3 to 5 minutes, and then stick your nose down there.

The first things you get will be those fleeting terpenes. If you’ve got California bay, those notes will be the big medicinal ones, menthol and camphor. If you’ve got sweet bay, you’ll still get some hefty initial notes, like camphor from the cineole, but as simmering time progresses, you’ll catch a sort of floral skunkiness – that’s the linalool’s influence. Piney, sagey notes come from the pinine, while the methyl eugenol might remind you of general earthy, savory notes. If you let that simmer go for 45 to 60 minutes, as you would for a soup or stew, and then taste your bay leaf tea, you’ll get hints of all these things – If you don’t, then what you’ve got is old, or old, crappy bay leaf – and that’s not at all uncommon.

Bay leaf’s contribution to your cooking is subtle – it’s a background stalwart, not a lead singer. What makes a sauce, soup, or stew great is the layering of flavors, and for that, a solid aromatic base is critical. Bay lends a raft of minor notes that, while perhaps not missed in and of themselves, certainly will be if they’re absent from the mix.

So what to do in your kitchen? Start by finding your bay leaf, opening the jar and giving it a big sniff. Do you get a nice, complex but subtle whiff of the stuff discussed herein? Do you remember where and when you bought those leaves? Does the container say anything about provenance? If the answer to those questions is, ‘no,’ then trash what you’ve got and get some fresh stuff. World Spice is a great go to for bay leaf – They carry both Turkish and California, and they’re always top notch quality. 

Bay does just fine as a dried herb, by the way. If you keep them in a clean, airtight glass jar, out of direct sunlight and wide swings of temperature, they’ll be good to go for 6 months, easy. If you want more from your bay, store them in your freezer and they’ll last for years.

Fresh Sweet Bay leaves
Fresh Sweet Bay leaves

You can use fresh bay leaves in cooking, but know that their potency is quite a bit higher than dried leaves, so adjust accordingly, and again, be sure you know what you’ve got – A freshly crushed leaf of fresh bay from our garden smells subtly savory and complex, just as described, whereas, at least to me, fresh California bay smells like a medicine cabinet – an overdose of the latter will ruin a meal really quickly.

Grow your own bay leaves

Finally, you can grow your own if you’re living in a USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 or thereabouts – We’re a 7+ here in the northwest corner of Washington State, and our little sweet bay plant is doing fine, even with a couple of hard frosts under its belt. Granted, it’s a small bush and not a tree – in its native turf, it can reach over fifteen meters in height. Here’s a very nice primer on doing so.

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