When you cook following a recipe, what would you do if it calls for a particular herb or spice which you do not have? I will omit it. Especially so when the recipe calls for a teeny-weeny amount. In my case, it was ONE piece of bay leaf. This was many years ago. Now, my advice to you is NOT to omit this superb piece of leaf. Even though it is just one piece. You must be wanting to know – what is the purpose of bay leaf and how does 1 bay leaf in a recipe affect the outcome of a dish? Follow me and I will tell you…
First of all,
What is Bay Leaf
These are aromatic leaves from an evergreen, upright bay tree. The leaves are robust, with a woody, sharp flavour and a pleasant, slightly minty aroma. There are several varieties of the plant, its leaves are used in cooking.
The common ones being:
- Bay Laurel (Laurus Nobilis Lauraceae), also known as Mediterranean bay leaves. Its leaf can be used either fresh or dried to flavour soups, stews and braises in Mediterranean cuisine.
- California Bay Leaf (Umbellularia Californica), also known as California Laurel, Pepperwood and Oregon Myrtle. This is similar to bay laurel but its flavour is stronger. Its leave has a smooth edge, whereas bay laurel has a wavy edge.
- Indian Bay Leaf (Cinnamomum Tamala, Lauraceae). Similar in appearance to bay laurel but the leaf has three veins and its taste and the woodsy scent similar to cinnamon bark but
milder. It is always added in dried form while tempering the oil, before adding the main ingredients.
Indian bay leaves are actually from cassia plant and gastronomes often wonder why they are grouped under the bay leaf.
- Indonesian Bay Leaf (Syzgium Polyanthum, Myrtaceae), or known as Daun Salam, is native to Indonesia. The leaves can be used fresh or dried, mostly for meats and less often for vegetables.
- West Indian Bay Leaf (Pimenta Racemosa), is more aromatic than other types of bay leaves. It is mostly used in Caribbean cooking, from meat stews and vegetables to simple white rice.
Here is the main question.
What is the purpose of bay leaf
Like any other herbs and spices, bay leaves add a distinctive flavour and fragrance to any dish. They have been used for centuries as a flavouring, with the ancient Greeks using them in their food.
The difference between bay leaves and any other herbs is that herbs used in cooking are mostly consumed but bay leaves are removed from the pot before serving. Why so? You will find out in the later part of this article.
Once you find out what bay leaves taste like, you will know the purpose of using it.
An easy method to find out:
Put a few leaves in a pot of water and let it simmer. After five minutes, the scent of menthol and eucalyptus will emerge.
Continue to simmer for about an hour, as though making a stew, the aroma and flavour will change. The menthol scent will reduce, while a more complex aroma will surface. These are the background flavours that anyone would look for in a good pot of soup, stew or sauce. Its woodsy tang and slight bitterness help to balance the tastes of a dish.
Personally, I find the flavour of bay leaves shines more in the soup, especially clear soup compared to stews or sauces as the later is more complexed. However, it still makes a difference.
Why is the spaghetti bolognese tastier at the restaurant? You might be missing the bay leaf when cooking at home! The bay leaf blends in harmoniously with other ingredients to provide the well-rounded flavour.
Now you know its purpose – do not omit the bay leaf when it shows in the recipe.
If you have some bay leaves still hiding in your kitchen cabinet, find out
How to use bay leaves
They are typically used to season dishes that require a longer cooking time such as braises, soups and stews. However, they can also enhance the flavour of dishes like pasta sauce and risotto that require only a short cooking period. The vital part is to have a bit of liquid for the bay leaves to infuse in order to get the process going.
Here are some of the ways to use bay leaves in cooking, even though the recipes you are following did not call for it.
Stews – Beef, pork, poultry or vegetables
- Add at the beginning of cooking
- A longer simmer will add depth to the dish
Braises – Beef, pork, poultry or fish
- Add with the liquid (water or stock) when cooking
- Add when tempering the oil, before adding the main ingredient
Soups or Stocks
- Add at the beginning
- Use the stocks for making sauces – excellent for anything tomato-based
Baked or mashed potatoes
- Cut potato into half → put a bay leaf in between → reassemble, wrap in foil and bake
- Add into boiling water when cooking the potatoes
Use Fresh Bay Leaves or Dried
The fresh leaves can impart a slightly bitter flavour in a dish when used in cooking. You may have to remove the leaves earlier when using fresh.
The dried takes several weeks after picking and drying to develop its full flavour. They impart a more refined flavour and are normally left in a dish as it cooks then removed before serving.
Click here to read more about Fresh Herbs vs Dried.
How to Store Bay Leaves
All freshly dried herbs remain fresh for up to 6 months when stored in an airtight container, placed in a cool, dry place.
It is good to know that dried bay leaves can last even longer when stored in the freezer. But then, you don’t need to store any longer if you use them constantly as suggested above. I am sure you will do so knowing the benefits of bay leaves.
What are the Benefits of Bay Leaves
The leaves of Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) tree, also known as Sweet Laurel, have been used medicinally since the ancient times to treat illness related to liver, stomach and kidney. Nowadays, herbalists use bay leaves for treating various health issues that include:
Type II diabetes patients have difficulty metabolizing glucose and bay leaves can help improve insulin function significantly to regulate glucose.
Bay leaves contain enzymes that break down proteins and promote healthy digestion. They reduce flatulence and also relieve common digestive disorders such as constipation, acid reflux and irregular bowel movements.
Heart Attacks and Strokes
Phytonutrients found in bay leaf improves heart function and provide protection against heart attacks, strokes and other common heart complications.
Besides, compound rutin in the leaf helps to fortify the walls of the capillaries. While another compound, the caffeic acid helps to remove bad cholesterol from the body. These help in keeping the heart healthy.
Caffeic acid, quercetin, eugenol and catechins in bay leaf have chemoprotective properties. These provide resistance against different types of cancer.
Free radicals are responsible for transforming the healthy cells into cancerous cells. Bay leaves are a rich source of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Thus, help eliminate the free radicals and protect the body against cancer.
Infection, Cold and Pain
Eugenol in bay leaf oil has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, making it perfect for curing infections. It is useful in treating flu and cold.
Also, its anti-inflammatory properties can ease the pain of strains, sprains and joint, as well as other common aches.
Bay leaves have a calming effect on the mind. Its mild sedative properties help induce sleep. Therefore, they can be used in the treating insomnia.
Other Benefits – External Uses
Packed with essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, bay leaves can promote healthy hair and skin. Here are some of the benefits:
Can Bay Leaves be Eaten
But you should NOT. They are sharp-tasting and bitter. Also because they are very tough and hard to digest. On top of that, they could scratch the digestive tract or cause choking.
Always remember to remove the leaves from the dish before serving.
Some leaves similar to bay leaves from the mountain and cherry laurel are known to be poisonous. Thus, some people consider all bay leaves are poisonous. Not so. Bay leaves sold for culinary purposes are not poisonous and perfectly safe for cooking.
Nowadays, as I continue learning herbs and spices and their uses, I know their purpose in a particular dish and will not purposely omit them. Believe me, a pinch of herb or spice does enhance the flavour of any dish. One bay leaf does make a difference. Once you recognized the taste, you can tell easily if the bay leaf is being used in a dish.
Furthermore, there are many uses for bay leaves and beneficial for health. Don’t neglect it when a recipe calls for one small piece of bay leaf. I will definitely use it where and when possible. Will you?
Run out of bay leaves? No worries, you can always buy them online.
Before I leave, one last tip for you.
You can use bay leaves as insect repellent too. The lauric acid in the leaves has insect repellent properties. A dish of bay leaves can ward off insects. This calls for another article on another day.
If you know of any other uses for bay leaves or any good recipes using them, please share with us at the comments section below. Together, we can better our home cooking with herbs and spices. Additionally, knowing more ways to utilize them – waste not.
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From the Corner of My Home – Spice Up Your Life with Herbs and Spices