I’m never happier than when I’m at home on a leisurely weekend, keeping an eye on the stove while a big pot of homemade stock, soup or pasta sauce bubbles away for hours. And since a lot of those long-simmering recipes call for bay leaves, I’ve dutifully dropped one or two of the leaves into pots for years with the faith that I was infusing the liquid with some elusive-yet-magical essence.
But when I sat down to eat, I often wondered: Do I actually taste the bay leaf, or am I just imagining that I do? Come to think of it, what do bay leaves even taste like? Are they worth the money? And when a recipe calls for a bay leaf, does that mean dried or fresh? Can they be used interchangeably?
I realized that while I liked the ritual of dropping those leaves into simmering pots of comfort food and watching them dance on the surface, I wasn’t sure they were actually doing anything.
On one hand, there are so many recipes and types of cuisines that call for this herb: Everyone from old-school Italian grandmas to fancy Michelin-starred chefs consider them essential to their broths, stews and sauces. On the other, not since cilantro have I ever heard an herb spark more controversy: It seemed like I was always hearing other home cooks complain that the brittle, dry leaves were totally worthless and devoid of flavor. Some wonder whether, at $4 or $5 for a small handful of leaves, they’re a total scam. But they also keep using them — either out of habit, or just to hedge their bets.
Since I had a lot of questions and zero answers, I did a little research. Then I turned to the pros to see if they could convince me that bay leaves really do add flavor to food.
What are bay leaves, anyway?
There are a few reasons cooking with bay leaves can be legitimately confusing for home cooks. The first thing to know is that there are two types of bay leaves commonly available in the U.S.: Turkish (also known as Mediterranean) and California. They come from two different plants, and are each named for the parts of the world where they originated.
While it’s possible to find both types for sale in dried and fresh forms, the vast majority of what you’ll come across is the Turkish variety. That’s what you’re likely to find dried in the spice aisles of supermarkets across America. You may spot them fresh in the produce sections of high-end grocers too. The leaves come from the bay laurel tree or shrub (Laurus nobilis), which predates the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Gourmet markets and spice shops may also sell the dried California variety (Umbellularia californica, which was used medicinally by Native Americans) as a second option, but they should be clearly labeled as such. In many parts of California, the plant is ubiquitous: Fresh leaves pop up at farmers markets (both for culinary use and woven into fresh herb wreaths), and hardcore home cooks who don’t have them in their own backyards forage them in the wild. (If you’ve hiked around San Francisco, you’ve probably noticed their distinctive, pleasantly medicinal aroma perfuming the trails.)
So what’s the difference? Turkish bay leaves are shorter and more rounded, and often have wavy edges. Their aroma and flavor is subtle, with a pleasantly minty taste and notes of warm baking spice. The California variety is typically long and thin, is pungently aromatic, and has an assertive, almost eucalyptus-y flavor. Because their flavor and aroma is so assertive, they can easily overpower food. California bay leaves may be better-suited to chefs, serious home cooks and herb nerds, rather than the home cook who’s just looking to build out a versatile spice cabinet.
How are bay leaves used?
Herb expert Cal Orey, who dedicated an entire chapter to the culinary herb in her book, “The Healing Powers of Herbs and Spices,” explains: “When a recipe calls for a bay leaf, I think it’s safe to assume that they mean the dried Turkish type. They’re what’s available in grocery stores and are the most commonly used, so unless a recipe specifically calls for something else, go with those.”
As for whether the different types of leaves can be used interchangeably, Orey pointed out another potentially confusing aspect of cooking with this herb. While the general rule with most herbs is that the dried versions are roughly double the potency of fresh, the opposite is actually true with bay leaves. The fresh ones are much stronger than dried, so they should be used more sparingly — especially the more assertive California variety. The general guideline is that if you want to swap in fresh leaves for dried, reduce the amount by half.
But no matter which type you’re using, cook with the whole leaves, and then discard them before serving. Yes, you can also buy ground bay leaves, but they’re rarely called for in recipes. Slowly coaxing the flavor out of whole leaves and then tossing them is definitely the way to go.
An argument for dried bay leaves
Orey, who is from California, has always been an advocate of cooking with bay leaves. She’s loved them ever since she was a child, when she remembers the distinctive minty-spicy-savory aroma of the herb scenting the air of her childhood kitchens. Given where she lives, she’s always had year-round access to both varieties of bay leaves, in fresh and dried forms. But because of what she calls the “paradox” of the herb — that the flavor of the fresh leaves is so much stronger than the dried — her go-to is always the dried Turkish variety. While some people may complain that the flavor of the dehydrated leaves is subtle, for her, that’s a good thing. She argues that the flavor of the fresh leaves is too potent for most recipes. But the delicate, nuanced taste of the dried type adds just the right level of herbaceousness to flavor dishes in a balanced way, while still allowing the other ingredients to come through.
Orey uses the dried herbs in soups and stews, in saucy main dishes like chicken cacciatore, and even to add a warm savory note to desserts like rice pudding. She also finds their flavor the perfect match for fish and shellfish.
She also prefers dried bay leaves for their accessibility and convenience. “Most people across the country don’t have access to the fresh leaves, which is one reason why the majority of recipes are written for the dried variety,” she said. “Not only are the dried leaves easier to find in grocery stores, but people who think they’re pricey should know that their shelf life is actually quite long. They last for a couple years. So it’s definitely worth the money to use the dried version — I’m never without a jar of them in my pantry.”
An argument for fresh bay leaves
James Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton has also long-used the dried herb in her cooking. She and her husband and co-chef, Greg Denton, own two acclaimed restaurants in Portland, Oregon: the classic French Bistro Agnes, and Ox, which takes its inspiration from Argentinian wood-fired cooking. The Dentons use dried bay leaves at both restaurants ― in a Madeira reduction that’s served with chicken liver mousse, and also in coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, bean ragoûts and salmon gravlax.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when the chef planted a 2-foot-tall Mediterranean bay laurel in her backyard, that she really fell in love with using fresh bay leaves, which she says have a much brighter flavor than the dehydrated type. “In their dried form, Greg and I feel that bay leaves serve as more of a back note in most of our recipes, to the point where — if they were omitted — most people wouldn’t notice that something was missing,” she explained. “I’ve never been too excited by their presence. So if we really want the flavor to play a more vibrant role in a dish, then we will use fresh bay.”
At home, she grabs some leaves from her plant to infuse in béchamel and velouté sauces, which serve as the base for mac and cheese or as the filling for pot pies. “But my absolute favorite is in a simple dish that my grandmother used to make for our family in the Andean highlands of Quito, Ecuador: a boiled artichoke with a side of warm, bay-flavored béchamel sauce for dipping — spiked with a swirl of homemade ají,” she said.
During the chef’s off-hours at home, she also makes an herbal tea by simmering fresh bay leaves with a cinnamon stick (finished with a splash of oat milk and a little honey), and a traditional Cape Verdean rice-and-beans dish called jagacida she learned back in college from her roommate’s dad. For those dishes and dozens of others, she said, “It’s absolutely worth seeking out the fresh leaves for the vibrant flavor they add to a dish.”
Shopping for and storing bay leaves
Fresh leaves should be a fragrant, vibrant green, free of blemishes and cracks, and should be flexible enough to bend or fold without breaking. Store them in the fridge to prolong their usability, and toss them when they start to lose their color or become brittle. (Of course if you ever find yourself with an excess of the fresh variety, you can always set the leaves out to dry while they’re still good so you can avoid buying more when you need them.)
Those little jars from the supermarket should last for a couple of years. So why is the biggest complaint about dried bay leaves that they don’t add any flavor to food? Probably because a lot of people don’t realize how many ways they can use them, so they let them languish for years and years in the back of their spice cabinets. Or, they’re storing them in a hot spot in their kitchens, which will rapidly diminish their flavor. Orey says you can check the expiration date to avoid past-their-prime leaves, but the more foolproof way is just to use your nose. If you don’t smell that complex aroma hit you when you open the jar, it’s time to toss it.
After talking to Orey and Denton, I came away from my bay leaf deep dive a true believer that the herb does indeed add nuanced flavor to countless dishes (as long as the dried leaves haven’t lost their essential oils while forgotten in the back of the spice cabinet). As Orey recommends, I’ll assume that when a recipe calls for bay, it means dried (and if all I have is fresh, I’ll use half the amount). On Denton’s advice, I’ll reach for dried leaves when I want more of a subtle background of bay and for fresh leaves in dishes where I want their more assertive flavor to take center stage. I also planted a small bay laurel in my own herb garden, so I’ll always have both the dried type in my pantry and fresh just outside my kitchen door. Who knows, maybe I’ll even make myself a crown.