Inside the Spice Cabinet: Bay Leaf

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Nickola_Che)

Bay leaves are unlike all the other herbs in the spice cabinet. While we cook with and eat most herbs, these aromatic leaves are best used whole and are always removed from the pot before eating.

What Is Bay Leaf?

Taste: Sweet, bitter
Most Popular Use: Soups, stews, sauces

Bay leaves come from the bay laurel tree, native to the Mediterranian regions, while California bay leaves come from a different type of tree and have a stronger, more astringent flavor. The leaves of either plant are generally 1-3 inches long, almond-shaped, and glossy green. Bay leaves are almost always dried and are actually at their best flavor a few weeks after drying. Fresh leaves are sometimes available, though their flavor is much more mild than dried.

The leaf itself doesn’t taste like much other than, well, a leaf. But steep a few leaves in a warm broth or sauce, and your dish becomes infused with fragrant flavor. It’s not usually a very forward seasoning, but its woodsy flavor and slight bitterness helps to balance the flavors in a dish.

The best place to store dried bay leaves isn’t actually in your spice cabinet, but in the freezer. When stored in the freezer, the leaves keep their potent flavor and aroma for a longer period of time.

How To Use Bay Leaf

Bay leaf is typically used to season long-cooking dishes like soups, stews, and braises, but it can also enhance the flavor of quicker-cooking dishes like risotto, pasta sauce, or even a simple pot of rice. The key is to have at least a little liquid for the bay to infuse and heat to get the process going.

The herb is used most widely in Mediterranean cooking, but since it was one of the earliest and most widely traded spices, bay has become an established seasoning in many cuisines around the world – most noticeably Indian, the Middle Eastern, and many European cuisines. It’s also one of the main ingredients in a classic French bouquet garni.

Recipes for Cooking with Bay Leaf