What are bay leaves? Learn everything you need to know about this fascinating spice in this comprehensive FAQ guide, from its origin to culinary uses!
Bay leaves are an aromatic cooking herb usually used in their dried form, added whole to sauces and stews to add depth of flavor then removed and discarded before serving.
That’s right, even though it’s used in cooking, whole bay leaves are not eaten, as it’s very bitter on the tongue.
Although most wouldn’t think of leaves as having much flavor or smell (especially in comparison to spices like paprika and chili), bay leaves are an exception.
You can use them dried and whole in your food, buy it cracked into small pieces (you don’t have to fish them out of your recipe this way) or crush them into a powder called “ground bay leaves” or use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to DIY before adding them to your dish, then the taste blends in and it’s not so bitter unless it’s overused.
While pricier and not as popular in American cooking, you can even find them fresh, and as you’ll see at this link, fresh bay leaves are shiny and deep green, unlike their dry bay leaf counterparts.
They’re also suitable for seasoning tomato sauces, soups, stews, marinades and dips like our NEW Easy Adobo Sauce recipe, pot roasts, and other slow-cooked meals because of their intense aroma and flavor.
When you think about it, the bay leaf is a pretty strange ingredient. I think of it as an extended-release seasoning because the dried leaf needs time to release its flavor.
It’s not exactly a kitchen staple—you don’t see it in every recipe.
Yet when you taste an Italian or Indian dish cooked with bay leaves, they’re always there: almost undetectable but still adding an element of depth to the flavor.
So, what are bay leaves for exactly?
Bay leaves are very fragrant and often used in bouquets and dried flower arrangements, too.
Keep reading to find out!
You’ve all heard of this little spice, but how much do you know about them?
Bay leaves are a pretty interesting part of the culinary world.
They’re not just any old herb; they’re a leaf.
They come from the Laurus Nobilis plant, which is a woody shrub that originates from the Mediterranean region.
The leaves are oval and about 3 inches (7.6 cm) long, with smooth but wavy edges and deep veins running through them.
When fresh, they’re dark green but turn olive when dried out.
They also look similar to those of the English or cherry laurel, a native evergreen shrub.
However, the two plants are very different, and the latter may be toxic if eaten.
Additionally, bay leaves have a rich flavor that goes well with meat and seafood dishes, so it’s not surprising that they’re used in cooking worldwide—even though they only grow in certain parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
What do bay leaves taste like?
Bay leaves are easy to use and add a ton of flavor to dishes.
But what do bay leaves taste like?
Well, bay leaves have this distinctively strong, aromatic, spicy flavor that works well with many different ingredients.
They also bring their pungent flavor to a variety of dishes and ingredients, making bay leaves a useful ingredient to keep in the pantry.
Additionally, the bay leaves have a woody, astringent essence that enhances savory, balanced flavors in recipes.
And their intense bitterness combined with a cooling undertone also makes them ideal for cooking with game meats like rabbit or venison.
Once you get past the smell, though, you’ll find that bay leaves taste quite mild—like cooked spinach with a hint of lemon zest.
Moreover, they’re not very tasty on their own, but if you add them to something like soup or stew; they can add just the right amount of flavor without overwhelming the dish.
How to use bay leaves in cooking?
Have you ever wondered to yourself, “How to use bay leaves in cooking?”
Bay leaves have a lot of uses in the kitchen.
They add a subtle herbal flavor to dishes, but they can also be used to infuse pickling brine or ground up into a spice rub.
To use bay leaves in cooking, simply toss one or two whole dried leaves into soups, stews, or braising liquids.
Let the liquid simmer along with any meat or vegetables and infuse them with a soft herbal flavor.
If you wish to make pickled vegetables with a dried bay leaf, you can add them to the pickling brine, too.
Leaving them whole makes it easier to see and remove them before serving the dish!
However, if you are using smaller bay leaves, you may want to put them in a tea infuser to make them easier to remove.
What are bay leaves for in cooking?
Here are other ways you can use bay leaves in cooking:
- Add bay leaves to meat or fish dishes before cooking.
- Add bay leaves to boiling water when cooking rice or our authentic Sloppy Joe sauce.
- Add bay leaves to soups, stews, and casseroles for added flavor and depth of aroma.
- NEW: Try this easy adobo sauce, dip, and marinade that uses one whole dried bay leaf
Do bay leaves really add flavor in cooking?
A question often arises: do bay leaves really add flavor to food?
In cooking, bay leaves are used as aromatic—they give off their distinct flavor when they’re heated.
This can be done by simmering them in soups or stews (or even just boiling water for a tea) as part of a marinade for meat or fish.
Many cooks will also use them as part of an aromatic blend for seasoning meat before roasting or grilling it.
But does one bay leaf really make much difference?
Would it matter if you used one or two?
The answer is yes.
However, the flavor depends on what kind you’re using.
There are two most commonly-used kinds: California bay leaves and Turkish bay leaves.
They look similar but have relatively different flavors.
California bay leaves have a stronger, oily flavor, while the Turkish bay leaves add a sharper, herbal taste and have a closer to that cinnamon profile aromatically.
Origins of bay leaves
Bay leaves are an essential ingredient in a wide variety of dishes, from soups and stews to roasts.
Their flavor is deep, rich, and savory, which enhances just about anything it touches.
But what are the origins of bay leaves?
Bay leaves weren’t always so popular.
And their origins are humble, to say the least.
They come from an evergreen tree that grows in the Mediterranean region and has been used as a flavoring agent for more than 3000 years now.
In fact, the ancient Greeks discovered bay leaves on a trip to Turkey, where they were brought back to Greece and Italy for cultivation.
And so, from that moment on, the ancient Greeks started decorating their statues of Aesculapius with laurel leaves.
During the Middle Ages (500 – 1500 AD), the popularity of bay leaves spread throughout Europe.
Monks began cultivating it in their monasteries and used it for both medicinal and culinary purposes.
And in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Europeans discovered that bay leaves, which had been imported from the Mediterranean region, added a pleasant flavor to roast meats.
And as a result of Spanish galleons, many New World foods made their way to Europe, and many European ingredients were also brought to the Americas, including bay leaves.
Varieties of bay leaves
There are wide varieties of bay leaves around the world, but the two most common are:
1. Mediterranean bay leaf (aka Turkish bay leaf)
Turkish bay leaves are one of the most commonly used aromatic leaves in cooking.
The flavor is delicate, with a hint of sweetness and a touch of bitterness.
And it’s often used to flavor soups, stews, braises, and pâtés in Mediterranean and Latin-American cuisine.
However, the leaves should be removed from the cooked food before serving since they have a bitter taste that can be overpowering if not balanced out by other ingredients in the dish.
Turkish bay leaves also contain a high concentration of essential oil, making them ideal for pickling and marinating.
2. Californian bay leaf (aka Umbellularia californica, Californian laurel, Oregon myrtle, and pepperwood)
California bay laurels are native to California, as their name implies.
They’re broad-leaved evergreen trees with rounded, oblong, or pyramid-shaped crowns.
And their leaves are shiny dark green above and duller and lighter below.
As a matter of fact, the early settlers of the West called this type of tree “pepperwood” because when you crush its thick, dark green leaves, they give off a scent like pepper.
And while it’s not ideal to use them to season your meals, the leaves of Umbellularia californica have a much stronger flavor.
That means you can use them in place of conventional bay leaves in recipes such as soups or stews.
There are several varieties of the herb that are less common, including:
1. Indian bay leaf
The Indian bay leaf is quite different from the European bay leaf.
It’s called tejpat, and it comes from the tejpat tree (Cinnamomum tamala).
The flavor is distinctly clove-like, slightly spicy, and refreshing.
The leaves are also added to curries and other Indian dishes in much the same way that European bay leaves are put into stews and soups.
But take note: When recipes call for Indian bay leaves or tejpat, do not substitute them with European bay leaves, as the flavor will not be correct for the recipe.
2. West Indian bay leaf
West Indian Bay Leaf is a leaf that is primarily used to create cologne, as well as for occasional culinary uses.
It’s derived from the West Indian bay tree and has an unmistakable scent—one that is rich and pungent.
Unlike the Mediterranean bay leaf, which is often associated with Italian cooking, this variety has flavors of allspice, menthol, and cinnamon.
You can find it in Caribbean dishes like meat stews and vegetables (like rice) but also in some simple white rice recipes.
3. Indonesian bay leaf
Indonesian bay leaf is an herb native to Southeast Asia.
It’s most commonly applied directly to the meat, though it’s rarely used outside of Indonesia—and usually in Indonesian cuisine.
When used as part of a spice blend, it offers a slightly sour taste that pairs well with chicken and fish dishes.
4. Mexican bay leaf
Mexican bay leaves are sourced from an elegant evergreen tree native to Mexico.
They have a light but pleasantly aromatic scent when crushed and a far stronger flavor than the California bay leaves.
They’re also used in Latin American cuisine, most often in soups, stews, braised meats, seafood, and marinades.
Is bay leaf a spice or an herb?
The bay leaf is technically an herb, but it acts like a spice in the kitchen.
They come from the Laurus nobilis, or bay tree–a popular evergreen shrub that’s loved for the aromatic flavor the leaves add to recipes.
You can use it whole or ground up in soups to add flavor and aroma to your cooking.
When cooking with bay leaves, be careful not to put too much in, as too much can make the meal bitter.
Therefore, it is important to cook slowly and carefully with them.
Tips on storing bay leaves
Here are some tips on storing both dry bay leaf and fresh bay leaf.
How to store dry bay leaves
So, storing dried bay leaves is simple: Keep them dry, out of the sun, away from heat, and out of humid areas.
I’ve had several dried bay leaves in a half-open zipper baggie for over two years. Not to say that they are still in their prime, but they still add a little something special when I use them in marinades and sauces.
I pulled the last two out for these photos, in fact. See? Still looking dry, with no spots or mold or bruising.
That said, I should replace these last two and get new ones, because even dry herbs and spices lose their flavor because air gets to them, even in the best of packaging.
Here are some tips on storing your bay leaves, so they stay good to use:
- Keep them in an airtight container. You can also use any old jar with a lid if you have no airtight container on-hand.
- Don’t store them near other spices like oregano or thyme; they have a similar profile to bay leaves and will absorb some of each others’ flavors if they’re too close together in storage.
- Store them in the refrigerator or anywhere out of direct sunlight or heat sources, such as stoves or ovens.
If your bay leaves are properly stored, they can last for up to two years before losing their distinct aroma.
How to store fresh bay leaf
Fresh bay leaf is a fresh plant.
Fresh bay leaves still have water in their veins, and can succumb to mold and rot and bruising, and do so much more quickly.
If your bay leaves have been washed, make sure they are patted dry so there isn’t too much moisture when you store them in the fridge.
Consider these as you would any other fresh produce; keep these in the refrigerator in a produce bag and they have two weeks or so.
And, of course, if you leave fresh bay leaf out in the air too long, they will then become dried bay leaf.
Always check for mold and spots before using fresh bay leaf.
What are some alternatives to bay leaves?
If you’re out of bay leaves, that’s okay.
There are still other ingredients to use in your cooking.
Oregano and thyme are close, but they don’t have the same subtle earthiness that defines bay leaf.
These herbs have their own unique flavor profiles, so if you use them instead of bay leaf, your dish might taste flat or one-dimensional.
But if you want to avoid using bay leaves at all, consider substituting them with these ingredients.
They will surely add color and texture without overpowering your dish.
The bottom line
Bay leaves are a common ingredient in many cuisines, especially in the Mediterranean and Asia.
They’re often used whole, but they can also be ground up into a powder to add flavor to dishes.
In cooking, bay leaves are often used as a base for soups or stews, or even the sauce in our authentic Sloppy Joes!
However, they can also be used as the main ingredient in a dish or added at the end of cooking so that their flavor is more pronounced when served.
Try them for yourself, and see what you think!
How To Store Fresh Bay Leaves
Here’s the best way to store fresh bay leaves in your refrigerator.
- Fresh bay leaves
- Kitchen towel
- Paper towel
- Airtight container
- Remove any dirt or dust on the leaves.
- Rise the leaves under cool water and pat them with a kitchen towel, allowing them to air dry for 10 minutes.
- Transfer the fresh leaves to an airtight container lined with a paper towel.
- Store the container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
- Check your bay leaf for signs of rot, mold, or bruising and discard if you see any of these signs.