Bay leaves are a fragrant leaf from the laurel tree used as an herb. Bay leaves are available whole, fresh or dried, or ground into a powder. The leaves are added to slow-cooked recipes, such as soups, sauces, and stews, and are removed before serving the dish. They have a floral and herbal scent reminiscent of oregano and thyme.
Bay leaves come from the bay laurel plant, an evergreen shrub that grows slowly in warm climates. The plants are grown for ornamental use and dried and used in cooking. The thick and leathery leaves are elongated with pointy ends. Most often, recipes call for dried bay leaves, which have a slightly stronger scent than fresh.
Other varieties of bay leaves are used throughout the world, including the West Indian bay leaf and Indonesian bay leaf. There are a few species of bay leaf that are poisonous, specifically the cherry laurel and mountain laurel, but these varieties aren’t sold as herbs.The bay leaves used for culinary purposes are not toxic and are safe to cook with.
Bay leaves have a long history, originating as an ornamental symbol of honor and success, and worn by Roman and Greek emperors, as well as Olympians, scholars, heroes, and poets. Because of this, two terms were created: baccalaureate, which is the reward for earning a bachelor’s degree, meaning “berries of laurel,” and poet laureate, an honor given by a government to someone to compose poems for special events.
Bay leaves have been used traditionally to relieve symptoms of indigestion and other stomach-related ailments. According to a 2019 report published in the Medicinal Plants of South Asia Journal, bay leaves not only add great flavor and taste to the food, but also help to give relief from abdominal pain, gastrointestinal infections, flatulence, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Bay leaves may also be used as a diuretic.
A 2014 study investigated whether bay leaf extract could help prevent kidney stones. The study found that, along with eight other traditional medicinal herbs, bay leaf was able to reduce the amount of urease in your body. Urease is an enzyme that, when out of balance, can lead several gastric disorders, including kidney stones.
According to a 2008 study, taking capsules that contain 1–3 grams of bay leaf daily can help lower and manage glucose levels and cholesterol levels in people with diabetes. This is most likely because bay leaves contain polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants. One study found that consuming capsules of ground bay leaves can decrease blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. More research is needed to determine if this effect is present when people consume much smaller quantities of bay leaves. A recipe serving four to eight people may only call for one leaf.
In lab studies, bay leaves have been found to have antibacterial properties, which means they stop bacteria from growing near them. More specifically, bay leaves inhibit the growth of both Staphylococcus aureus (the bacteria behind Staph infections) and E. Coli. An early lab study also shows that bay leaves fight off H. Pylori, a bacteria that causes ulcers and even cancer.
How to Buy
Bay leaves can be purchased in most major grocery stores. Fresh bay leaves may be more difficult to find, but they are usually grouped with the fresh herbs in the produce department. Dried bay leaves come in a spice jar and can be found in the spice aisle of your supermarket.
The fresh leaves should be bright green and waxy looking and twist without tearing. Look for dried leaves that are free of blemishes, cracks, and tears.
There are two main varieties of culinary bay leaves: Turkish (or Mediterranean) bay leaves and California bay leaves. The Turkish variety is the most common, with a more subtle flavor compared to California bay leaves, which have more potency and a slightly mint taste. They are distinguishable by the shape of the leaf: Turkish has the more familiar short and fat leaf versus the thinner and longer silhouette of the California variety. The majority of fresh leaves sold in the U.S. are California bay leaves while the dried come from Turkey. Adding a fresh California bay leaf to a recipe could overpower the flavors of the dish, so dried Turkish bay leaves are called for in most recipes.
How to Store
Fresh bay leaves can be placed in a sealed silicone bag and stored in the refrigerator where they will last for a week or two. Dried bay leaves can be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry, and dark spot, such as the spice cabinet or pantry; they will last up to two years before losing their aroma. You can also store the sealed dried bay leaves in the freezer, which will help the bay leaf retain its flavor.
How to Cook
Cook with bay leaves by placing full, dried leaves into a dish before cooking so that the food absorbs their flavor.
Seasoning foods with crushed bay leaves is the best way to gain their full nutritional value. Dried, crushed bay leaves can be found in the spice and seasoning sections of most grocery stores. They can also be prepared at home by grinding full, dried bay leaves.
The leaves do not soften as they cook, so bay leaves are added to simmering sauces or included in a braising liquid, and then removed before serving. The leaves have sharp points that can cut the mouth. Add the whole dried leaf to the recipe and take out once the dish is finished cooking. If using the fresh, California bay leaves, add half of the amount called for (which may mean tearing a leaf in half).