Shutterstock / Dmitry Kalinovsky
Have you ever tried to chew a bay leaf? They aren’t exactly pleasant. When fresh, these thick leaves tend to taste more like eucalyptus than anything else, and it’s easy to see why chefs tend to remove them before serving soups or stews. But why do people use them in long-simmering dishes at all? As with many herbs, it’s all down to how the flavors combine.
Letting Things Stew
The key is letting the bay leaves sit and simmer in your dish. Over time, the heat breaks down some of the more potent leaf flavors, especially that menthol-like tinge, and turns them into a gentler, more pleasant element of your soup.
Combine this transformed flavor with the rest of your recipe—particularly in liquid or high-moisture foods—and the bay leaf adds a slightly sweet, sort of tea-like note. It’s a fairly mild addition that sits in the background and enhances other, bolder flavors. It’s often only when people are given a blind taste test that they notice one dish has a better flavor profile than another, with the addition of nothing but the humble bay leaf. This works particularly well in recipes that include meats such as chicken or beef.
But, after an hour or so or simmering, the bay leaf itself doesn’t do much good, and doesn’t have the right texture to eat, so it is discarded. No one wants to chew on that rough leaf in the middle of an excellent soup.
Keeping Bay Leaves on Hand
A couple important notes about using these leaves: Firstly, there are two different types, Turkish (rounder) and California (more blade-shaped). California bay leaves are known to have a stronger, sharper flavor, while the Turkish version is milder and sweeter.
Secondly, while bay leaves can last for months in storage quite easily (the freezer is usually suggested), they will be a lot stronger when they are fresh, so make sure you adjust your recipes accordingly. In fact, some chefs prefer working with the dried version so that the flavor isn’t too strong. Speaking of recipes, cooks have been coming up with interesting new uses for bay leaves, such as using them in desserts for a more unusual mint-like bite. Would you dare?