Getting to Know Bay Leaves is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters-Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Scientific Name: Laurus nobilis
Bay leaves are a cross between a spice and a herb. They can be used fresh or dried, and are used in cuisines ranging from Mediterranean, West Indian, Indonesian, Mexican and Indian. Even though they appear to be ubiquitous, bay leaves differ from each other in their flavour, size and appearance. Bay leaves are dark green in colour, changing to a deep khaki once they are dried. The different varieties can be substituted for each other, but the best flavour comes from using the variety recommended in your recipe, particularly if it calls for fresh.
Bay leaves have a long and illustrious history. They were considered noble by ancient Greek and Rome cultures, and a symbol of learning and power. Physicians wore a wreath of bay or laurel leaves, as they were an essential part of healing medicines. The bay leaf is also associated with winning, with ancient Olympic athletes being crowned with them.
How to Use Bay Leaves
Bay leaves have a warm, aromatic, pungent and slightly hot flavour. Different varieties have differing flavours. The Indian variety, for example, has a sharper, more earthy flavour, while the West Indian version tends towards a more floral, citrussy cinnamon fragrance. The most commonly used bay leaves are the California laurel variety, distinguishable by their slightly wavier leaf edges.
Bay leaves are an essential part of several cuisines. In French cooking, they are most commonly used as part of a bouquet garni, a collection of herbs that's added to stews, soups and sauces to enhance flavour. Bay leaves can be used whole, as an aromatic (in which case you need to remember to pull them out before serving) and ground up, as part of a spice mix. In India, my mother had a small bay leaf (or kari patta, as it's known there) plant, and we used it fresh, as a flavour enhancer, in meat dishes like pork curry, and dried, in a lot of spice mixes. It's an essential spice in Mediterranean cooking as well, and is used both fresh and dried. Fresh and dried bay leaves are not interchangeable, as their flavours are completely different. Dried bay leaves are intensely aromatic, especially when crushed, while fresh tend to be oilier. They are an essential part of traditional tomato sauce in Italian kitchens. The Greeks use them in grilled and marinated fish and meat dishes.
Non-Culinary Uses of Bay Leaves
As mentioned earlier, bay leaves have been around for a long time, particularly as a medicinal ingredient. They have been used as an insecticide, to keep away moths from clothes. Bay leaves have been used to treat high blood pressure, headaches and as a fungicide. The oil that is pressed out of bay leaves has been used in ancient medicine to treat digestive problems, bruising and for reducing colic in babies. It has also been used in the relief of diabetes as well as to alleviate headaches and insect bites.
Bay Leaf Trivia
By the way, did you know that the term baccalaureate came about as a result of the handing out of bay leaf crowns to successful students and athletes? The word 'laureate' is also derived from this tradition.
- 1 onion
- 2 carrots
- 1 fennel bulb
- 2 sticks of celery
- 1 leek
- Small handful parsley stalks
- 2 dried bay leaves, torn
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 sprig rosemary
- ½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- Cold water
- Chop the onion, carrots, fennel, celery and leek roughly into largish pieces.
- Place the vegetables, herbs and the black pepper in a large stockpot and cover completely with cold water.
- Bring to a gentle boil, then turn down the heat and let the stock bubble away for about 2 - 3 hours.
- Strain, being careful not to press down too hard on the vegetables. Discard the vegetables and aromatics.
- You can freeze the stock in containers or use it fresh.
What's your favourite use for bay leaves? Leave a link to a recipe on your blog in the comments so everyone can check it out!
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