What is Bay Leaf?

Cassie L. Damewood

Bay leaf is the fragrant leaf of the bay laurel evergreen tree or large shrub and is used in cooking savory dishes. It is a popular additive to pâtés, soups, seafood, braised meat and poultry and stews. Since it is extremely mild when first harvested, bay leaf is traditionally only used after it has been dried for few weeks, which allows the flavor to intensify. Its aroma is more distinctive than its flavor, and it is frequently compared to the fragrance of oregano or thyme.

Bay leaves may be used as a roach repellent.
Bay leaves may be used as a roach repellent.

Other similar looking dried leaves are often marketed as bay leaves but generally lack the aroma or distinctive flavor of bay laurel. These varieties frequently include California, Indian, and Indonesian bay leaf. When buying this spice, consumers are generally urged to carefully read the label to ensure they are buying true bay leaf or bay laurel.

Bay leaf can be used to flavor a hearty beef stew.
Bay leaf can be used to flavor a hearty beef stew.

Bay leaf is a popular culinary seasoning in a variety of countries and cultures. Mediterranean dishes often include the spice, as do foods prepared in France, India, Pakistan and North America. It is normally used whole and removed from a dish before it is served. Whole bay leaves are generally not consumed either in the dried state or after cooking. True bay laurel is not poisonous, as is widely rumored, but has a bitter taste that most palates find intolerable. Other species of the leaf can be toxic, but are not normally available in food markets.

Ground forms of the leaf may also be used for cooking. In this form, it is normally contained in a muslin bag or tea infuser to keep it from mixing with the rest of the ingredients. Grinding it makes its flavor more intense, but the grainy texture of the ground leaves is generally considered a deterrent to the textural appeal of most dishes.

Besides cooking, bay leaf is also used in herbal remedies. It may be used as a fresh or dried leaf or its oils extracted to use in liniments. Bay laurel is also a common component of perfumes and colognes and is often used in cleaning products to mask unpleasant disinfectant odors. Scattering it in pantries is an alleged deterrent to roaches, meal moths and flies.

In ancient times, bay laurel was hailed as a symbol of honor. The bay laurel tree or its leaves were often depicted on statues and family shields. Placing a leaf of bay laurel under one’s bed pillow on Valentine’s Day was once thought to induce the sleeper to dream of their future spouse.

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