Know Your Herbs: Bay Leaves

Bay leaves lend distinctive flavor and aroma to soups, stocks, stews, braises, and more. They are two varieties, though one is much more commonly used in recipes all over the world.

Dried bay leaves

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Just about every recipe for homemade stock or a long-simmered soup calls for dropping a bay leaf or two into the pot. The aromatic leaves might not look like much at surface level but their flavor is unlike any other herb or spice.

Bay leaves are sweet, herbal, floral, and lend depth of flavor to a multitude of dishes. Here’s everything you need to know about this unique herb.

What Are Bay Leaves?

Bay leaves are an aromatic herb that hail from the bay laurel tree, which is a tree native to the Mediterranean. The leaves are almond-shaped, green, and about two to three inches long. Bay leaves are most commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine, but you’ll also find them frequently reached for in Indian, Middle Eastern, Filipino, French, and even Caribbean cuisine.

Fried bay leaves in lavender bowl

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Varieties of Bay Leaves

The most common variety of bay leaves are that of the bay laurel tree, which are also known as Turkish bay leaves. There is, however, another variety of bay leaves known as California bay leaves. These come from the California bay tree, or California laurel, which is a different type of tree. California bay leaves are thinner, longer, stronger in flavor, and have a minty taste. They are not interchangeable due to their flavor differences.

When a recipe calls for bay leaves, you can assume it means dried Turkish bay leaves unless otherwise noted.

Fresh vs. Dried Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are available both fresh and dried, though this is one case in which dried is actually preferred.

In the United States, the fresh bay leaves that are sold are almost always California bay leaves, not Turkish. Their flavor can quickly overpower a dish with a strong, menthol flavor, so it’s not recommended to use them unless the recipe specifically calls for them.

Dried bay leaves, however, are usually Turkish in the U.S. and impart a much more subtle, nuanced flavor to dishes.

Close up bay leaf on wood cutting board

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What Do Bay Leaves Do?

The flavor of bay leaves is hard to pinpoint because it’s so distinctive. They are both sweet and savory, with floral, spicy, woodsy, and slightly bitter undertones.

What makes bay leaves special is their flavor is used more as an enhancer than a predominant force. When simmered in soups, stocks, and sauces for a while, they help draw out the flavors of the other ingredients and marry them together harmoniously and lend balance to the resulting dish.

Where to Buy

You can find dried bay leaves in the spice section of pretty much every grocery store. For the best flavor, however, it’s worth seeking them out at your local spice shop. Like all dried herbs and spices, their flavor diminishes over time and dried bay leaves are at their best soon after they’ve been dried. Since spice shops tend to run through supply more efficiently than the spice aisle of grocery stores, you’ll usually get more flavorful bay leaves there.

Fresh bay leaves are harder to source but can sometimes be found with the other fresh herbs in the grocery store.

How to Store

The very best way to store dried bay leaves is to place them in a zip-top bag or airtight container in the freezer. This helps them retain their aroma and flavor even longer than storing them in your spice cabinet.

If, however, you don’t have space in your freezer, you can store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark spot in your spice cabinet or pantry. Properly stored, they’ll last for up to three years.

Fresh bay leaves can be refrigerated in a zip-top bag or airtight container for up to a couple weeks.

Bay Leaf Substitutes

There really is no substitute for bay leaves. However, if you’re in a pinch, you can reach for dried oregano or thyme, which also have a sweet, herbaceous flavor. Use 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme for every one bay leaf called for in a recipe.

Recipes That Call for Bay Leaves

Bay leaves are most typically used in recipes that require long simmering or braising, which coaxes the delicate flavor out of the leaves. You’ll also find them in quicker cooking recipes, such as rice and lentil dishes.