What's the Deal with Bay Leaves?

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They sit in a jar on your shelf, getting little love. They may appear in a recipe or two throughout the year, and sometimes you remember to fish them out of whatever you're cooking before serving. Otherwise, it's either you, or your mother-in-law who ends up biting into that leathery, bitter leaf.

But bay leaves are your friend. They can really enhance a dish if you know how to deal with them. They come in two varieties: Turkish and California. The Turkish are more subtle in both color and flavor than their California counterparts which are bright green and fragrant.

Traditionally, bay leaves are used to augment flavors in Mediterranean, French, Moroccan, and Turkish dishes and in spice blends such as bouquet garni and curry blends. Bay leaves are sold in whole or powdered form. The whole leaves are the ones you add to a soup or stew when it is first beginning to cook (and removed at the end.) The powdered form is a nice addition to a spice rub for meat and fish.

I find that my bay leaves, when stored in an airtight container away from the sun last quite a while. Many, such as the companies who sell spices, will tell you to replace your stock after a year, but I think there's a little bit of marketing in statements like that. If they are still aromatic (in a good way), go ahead and use them. Experiment. Makes friends.

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.