The herb guide: bay leaves

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and regular Borough blogger, Ed Smith, looks in depth at the many fresh herbs available in the Market. This month: bay leaves

Reading and talking about bay leaves, I have come across the following two questions most often: ‘are bay leaves poisonous if you eat them?’ And, ‘what’s the point?’ Well, in answer to the first: no. There’s a related laurel leaf that you should stay away from, but old wives’ tales about bay leaves are unfounded.

To the second, the answer is loads! Hence its inclusion in our herb guide series. These leaves, in Europe at least, are the leaves of the bay laurel. They’re relatively mild, yes, but there’s a definite flavour in bay—menthol, eucalyptus in particular—which adds depth to numerous stews, stocks, rice dishes and more.

For the first time (I think), there’s no need to heed the generic storage guidance of this herb series. Bay leaves are relatively dry, hard and waxy when fresh, let alone at the stage many of us buy them (i.e. dried).

In the dried state, they’ll last for a good deal of time. But left longer than 12 months, you’ll find that adding leaves from that lovely looking wreath you have stops having significant impact on your food, save there being a paper-thin, brown-green crisp in your ragu. I try to use dry leaves within six months of purchase.

More often than I think we used to, we now find ‘fresh’ bay leaves at grocery shops and stalls. The general opinion seems to be that flavours develop and become more floral as the leaves dry. But I think it’s wrong to take that as meaning fully dry bay leaves are best.

Far from it: in my experience, green leaves that have been picked and packed have plenty of those menthol notes mentioned above, and a few weeks after getting them seem to be at their peak. My guestimate, having picked the odd fresh leaf from bay trees at home, is that that time represents the period of seven to 28 days after picking.

In short, whatever state you buy them in, don’t wait for bay leaves to completely dry out!

Cooking tips
Unlike all the other herbs we’ve looked at so far, bay leaves are not for eating. That’s not to say they’re poisonous. Rather, well, good luck chewing through one. (That said, in Indian cooking you often find bay leaves are ground like a dry spice as part of a garam marsala. Make sure your grinder turns it to a dust.)

Bay leaves are for infusion, not garnish or bulk. So there’s a pretty easy cooking tip for bay: it’s best used in liquid heavy dishes, left to bubble over a long cooking period, or perhaps infuse into milk or cream.

One thing I tend to do is snap and fold the leaves a little before adding them to a dish—though don’t break them up or tear them fully apart, as it will take longer to fish them out at the end of the cooking process. It’s the same as when you bash and bruise rosemary to help release the oils.

Classic uses
Where to start? Various soups, stews, casseroles and sauces feature bay, but it’s so generic an ingredient (and one that is rarely highlighted as the star) that it’s hard to know what to single out.

Perhaps bay’s best-known role in European cooking is within the classic bouquet garni. Though this bundle of herbs (tied together, so it’s easy to fish out) might include sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley, savory, chervil, tarragon or possibly celery tops and more, it will always include a bay leaf.

But how many other recipes have you seen where it’s also just added on its own? Hundreds. From spag bol to Lancashire hotpot, it’ll be in there somewhere. It’s not unusual to see bay leaves used in dry heat dishes too—a handful stuffed inside a chicken while roasting, for example, or tucked among a set of pork or lamb chops being baked at high heat in the oven.

The flavour is subtle, though, so you need a few of them. To my mind it’s also better for them to be relatively fresh if there’s no cooking liquid.

Sauces often include bay, not least bread sauce, in which bay flavours are infused into the milk and are as vital as onion, cloves and black peppercorns. Similarly, bay will often be used to add another dimension to the milk or cream used in a vegetable gratin. You’ll see bay leaves in many (most?) pickle and chutney recipes as well—a leaf or two slipped into a jar to add depth and variety.

Bay leaves are also used in other cuisines. The actual plant varies, and the flavours are slightly different too (Indian bay is more like cinnamon than eucalyptus) but the way the leaves are used is similar. If you’re recreating the dishes of India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Caribbean, there’s every chance the recipe for a spicy stew or pilaf will include bay.

Though generally used in savoury dishes, those menthol and eucalyptus characteristics are shared with the likes of cardamom. It should be no surprise, then, that bay has a place on the dessert trolley too—most obviously in rice pudding and custard (and that custard could be simply for pouring, or use on a bread pudding, in a set pudding or ice cream).

Market herb hero
Oliveology’s kalamata olives sit in rather special olive oil and the odd bay leaf or two.

A recipe suggestion
Bay two ways: infused into the milk of a rice pudding along with a little cardamom, which highlights that menthol and eucalyptus quality further; and tucked in an among forced rhubarb, as a gentle scent that starts to infiltrate the pink batons as they release their juices and cool. It’s easy and comforting. Give it a go.